As I spend time in the diabetes online community (DOC), I am continually touched by the willingness of its members to share of themselves and their experiences to help and inspire others. One such person is Richard Vaughn, whom some of you may know from diabetes forums as Richard157. Today I’d like to share his story with you; as someone who has lived with type 1 diabetes for 68 years, he has a fascinating history.
Diagnosed with diabetes at age 6 in 1945, Richard recalls what life was like for him at that time and that there was no type 1 or type 2 diabetes distinction. “Anybody who had high blood sugar was called a diabetic, and they were automatically given insulin,” he said. “The insulin worked very well for me. It kept me alive. I was losing so much weight and was in terrible shape at the time I was diagnosed, and this insulin just revived me. I gained my weight back and was looking great by the end of the year.”
It was also a time before diabetes was commonly known. “It was a nuisance to be in school with kids and teachers who knew nothing about diabetes,” he said. “My teachers had never even heard of the word, so my mother would have to go in each year and tell them exactly what it was all about. It was all a mystery to them.”
Even though Richard’s parents were familiar with diabetes, so much was still not understood about it. Richard remembers a time when he had the flu in the eighth grade. “My parents stopped giving me insulin because they thought if I wasn’t eating food, I didn’t need insulin,” he said. “That made sense back then, but that of course is not true. I was so weak I couldn’t even lift my head off the pillow, and I couldn’t keep anything, not even water, in my stomach. So they called the doctor and he came out. They hospitalized me and brought me back to health.”
Carb counting was not a common practice while Richard was growing up. “My doctor told us that I should avoid sugar at all costs, but he didn’t say anything else about how I should eat,” Richard said. “Carbohydrates were not mentioned. My mother made me pies, cakes and cookies sweetened with saccharin. That was about the only artificial sweetener that existed in my childhood. I didn’t find out about carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar levels until 1988.”
The 1980s also brought the availability of the glucose meter; prior to that Richard relied on physical feelings to alert him to low blood sugar. “I would just stick to my feelings because there was no way of testing my blood sugar,” he said. “It was 40 years before I could test my blood sugar. Before that, I tested urine. I had my first A1C test around 1980. So from 1945 to 1980, I really didn’t have any idea of what my blood sugar was or whether it was good or bad. There was just no clue.”
Richard reached adulthood without much contact with other people living with diabetes. “It wasn’t until 2006 that I found diabetes support groups online,” he said. “The first one I joined was DLife.com. Another one of my favorites is DiabetesDaily.com. I really got into visiting the forums, and would spend hours each day talking with other diabetics. They were interested in what it was like in the old days, and somebody suggested that I should put my blogs together and publish them; that’s how my book came into being.” Richard self-published his autobiography, “Beating the Odds: 64 Years of Diabetes Health,” in 2010.
Interacting with parents of children living with type 1 diabetes is one way Richard enjoys giving back to the DOC. “I have communicated with so many parents, and encouraged them that it is possible for their child to grow up and do almost anything they want to,” he said. “These parents are often very optimistic after they get to know about people like me, and they seem to have hope for the futures of their children. I feel like I’ve done something good for them.”
The DOC pointed Richard to the Joslin Medalist program, which recognizes those living with diabetes who have been insulin-dependent for 25, 50, 75 or 80 years. “I found out that you have to have proof of the year that you were diagnosed, and I didn’t have any proof,” he said. “My parents were gone. My doctor had died. So I had my sister and a first cousin write letters for me, and that’s how I got my 50-Year Medal in 2009. It meant a lot to me, partially because I was able to participate in the 50-Year Medalist Study, and I really wanted to. Also, they have a meeting every two years in Boston where you can sit and compare stories, and get to know other medalists. That has meant a lot to me.”
Now in retirement, Richard relishes routine. “While I was teaching mathematics at a local college, my schedule was different almost every day,” he said. “It was very erratic, and so was my blood sugar accordingly. After I retired, I was able to fix my own schedule. I can finally have excellent control of my blood sugar. The best part of my retirement has been seeing my grandkids born and visiting my two sons who have good jobs and wonderful homes. Having good control means I can enjoy myself when I’m with them. That’s my ultimate joy.”
What an illuminating view into the history of certain aspects of diabetes care. Richard is quite generous to offer his many life experiences so candidly in an effort to help others. He’s a great example of someone open to connecting, sharing and learning. My thanks to him for sharing his story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Richard Vaughn received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.