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A Medalist’s Tale: Bill Pittman’s 75 Years with Type 1 Diabetes

Sharing what it was like to grow up with T1 in the 1940s and '50s

Laura Kolodjeski of Sanofi US DiabetesLaura Kolodjeski

As I’ve been watching the 2014 Sochi games, one of the things I’ve enjoyed is hearing the backstories of some of the athletes. It’s so inspiring to learn where they came from and what drives them to compete and succeed. The stories of Joslin Diabetes Center Medalists are no less moving. Last week we featured the story of 50-Year Medalist Prudence Barry. Today I’d like to introduce you to Bill Pittman, a retired intellectual property lawyer and 75-Year Medalist.

In 1938, Bill was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a young age. “It started out as quite a project,” he recalled. “The tools for managing diabetes were still pretty primitive. I used glass syringes that had to be sterilized after every use, big fat needles and urine tests for measuring urine sugar levels. It was impossible to tell what your blood sugar level really was.”

Bill Pittman with his Joslin 75-Year Medal
Bill Pittman with his Joslin 75-Year Medal

Growing up, Bill’s mother handled most of his diabetes care. “After I was diagnosed, my mother immediately took over and learned everything she could, about my diabetes, anyway,” he said. “She tried to teach me a couple times to inject my own insulin, but she claimed the spring-loaded injector devices I was using kept breaking the syringes, so she’d take it over again. She was a pretty overbearing individual. What she said went in our house and I didn’t have much to say about it.”

Music has played a significant role throughout Bill’s life. He started playing the violin when he was 9, then switched to the viola as a teenager. “When I was 15, I wanted to go to a music camp,” he said. “My mother said I could go, as long as she came with me and brought my 4-year-old brother. She didn’t trust me enough to make it through two weeks without having her there to watch. She came and I made it through doing it all myself. From then on, I handled my diabetes management pretty much on my own.”

The next two summers Bill attended at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Mich., serving as principal violist of the Honors Orchestra, a select group of hand-picked campers. He also was principal violist of his high school orchestra for several weeks.

Bill’s self-care continued through college. “I lived at home when I went to the University of Missouri, in Columbia,” he said. “My father was on the faculty of law there and I was studying chemistry. My mother died while I was a sophomore in college. My father was sort of overcome by the whole situation, teaching law, trying to keep the house going and raising my younger brother who was about 8 at the time. He had plenty to do and I got through college while self-managing my diabetes.”

During and after graduate school at the University of Illinois for organic chemistry, Bill had a friend who also helped support his diabetes care. “I had a terrible time with low blood sugar from the mid-1950s on through the ‘80s,” he said. “One time at graduate school I had a reaction at night and managed to break my shoulder in convulsions. My roommate became familiar with my symptoms and learned to help keep track of when my blood sugar was going down. He kept an eye on me and clued me in to when I needed something to eat.”

The 1980s brought an improvement for Bill’s health, when his endocrinologist suggested he start checking his blood sugar level with a blood glucose meter. Prior to that, Bill had only tested his sugar level in his urine. “Testing my blood sugar tells me where I am at any given moment,” he said. “Now I can see patterns in my blood sugar and make adjustments with insulin and in what I eat. If I see it’s going low, I can boost it up. It makes a big difference, I’d say.”

The Joslin Medalist Program has awarded Bill both its 50-Year and 75-Year Medals. “To me, being a Medalist means I must be doing things fairly well,” he said. “I believe my genes are good. My father was one of 11 children and almost all of them lived into their 90s, so we come from a hardy stock. That may have something to do with my good health.”

Now in retirement, Bill’s days are filled with reading and walking his two dogs. He also enjoys spending time with Meme, his wife of nearly 40 years, whom he met as a stand partner in the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra. “Meme is really a big part of my diabetes support system,” he said. “She is extremely scientific in her food preparation. She prepares these wondrous meals, although I do breakfast, and they all fit into my diet pretty well. She keeps an eye on me and suggests when I maybe need something to eat occasionally.”

Based on 75 years of living with diabetes, Bill has this advice to share with others living with diabetes. “Keep track of what’s going on with your health and don’t get diverted,” he said. “To anyone who’s just starting to deal with diabetes, I’d say really work on it. It’s worth it. It can make your life livable and worthwhile.”

I love featuring Joslin Medalists on Discuss Diabetes; their stories are so inspiring. Have you met any Joslin Medalists, or are you a Joslin Medalist yourself? Please share your experience in the comment section below. My thanks to Bill for sharing his story.

All the best,

Laura K.

Disclosure: Bill Pittman 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.

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