By: Melissa Sattley
Bill King was training for the Philadelphia marathon when he noticed that no matter how much he drank, he had an inexhaustible thirst. He was easily fatigued and had to go to the bathroom constantly. He had been running and training hard since the age of 17 as a competitive runner. Yet, at 24, it suddenly seemed like everything he had worked for was slipping through his fingers due to this mysterious illness.
King was working as an orderly at Philadelphia’s Bryn Mawr hospital at the time. Luckily it didn’t take long before one of the nurses mentioned diabetes as the possible cause of his symptoms. No one in his immediate family had ever been diagnosed with diabetes. Yet, when they monitored his blood sugars they were at a dangerously high level of 934, and he was quickly rushed to the intensive care unit. “The minute I heard I had type I diabetes,” says King, “I was devastated. I thought it meant the end of my competitive running.”
After being released from the ICU, he still couldn’t come to terms with his diabetes. “I went out to the stairwell and started running the stairs to see how it would affect me. I didn’t want to give up my old lifestyle.”
His doctor, worried about the impact the diagnosis might have on him, sent a psychiatrist up to his room. “He wanted to talk about my depression after the diagnosis. I told him ‘if I need you I’ll call you.'”
King wanted simplicity, so eight months after being diagnosed he decided to try the insulin pump with Humulin. This was 1983, however, and pump technology was still rudimentary. “My pump was the size of a brick, and it clogged twice. So I gave it up and went back to injections,” he says.
As a child, King’s father had been an East Coast marathon champion. Running had always been a part of his life, but suddenly he found it hard to compete because of low blood sugars.
“Marathons are an extreme sport-the training is even harder than the run,” he says. “I couldn’t train for longer distances. I felt I was being hindered by diabetes.” Despite this, he refused to give up running altogether, he ran half marathons and 5Ks instead.
King joined the landmark ten-year Diabetes Control and Complications Trial. During the study King gave himself four daily injections of beef and pork insulin. As a result of the DCCT study, he learned the importance of tight control in reducing complications such as retinopathy, kidney disease, neuropathy and heart disease.
Throughout the years, King had had a number of hypoglycemic episodes. After a particularly bad one in which he was involved in a minor car accident, King knew he needed a radical change in his diabetes control. He decided to give the insulin pump another try-this time with Humalog. Pump technology had improved drastically since his experience in the eighties. Now they were light, compact and easy to carry. After a few months on the pump, his HbA1c lowered from 7.5% to under 6%-lower than it had been during the DCCT study. So far, King has had nothing but praise for the pump and his new insulin Humalog. “It’s been great in my pump. I haven’t had any problems with clogging. Plus it works quickly, and is more predictable.”
Since the pump had been keeping his sugars well controlled, and he had had very few incidents of hypoglycemia, King decided to train for full marathons again. With the help of his endocrinologist he found Gary Scheiner, a certified diabetes educator and exercise physiologist. “I needed someone to help me fine tune my pump. I did a six-hour fast to see if my basal was set right. He helped me with carb counts and how much replacement fluids I’d need. This is critical information for anyone interested in exercising while using a pump.”
In December 1996, 14 years after his diagnosis, Bill King finally got to run the 26-mile Philadelphia Marathon. During the run, he tested his sugars over 20 times, his brother riding alongside him on a bike holding his glucose monitor. Halfway through the marathon his energy began to drop, and his sugars dipped into the 40s.
“I had to make a decision whether to drop out or not. I started drinking juice and eating snacks. Luckily they went back up again, so I could finish the race,” King says. He completed the marathon in three hours and 13 minutes.
Often competitive runners with diabetes find that they have more to contend with than just finishing. “I literally have to do battle with adrenaline at the start and finish of a race. My sugars skyrocket every time I have an adrenaline surge,” King explains.
Now married and a father of two, Bill King has come a long way in dealing with his diabetes. His knowledge of the disease and his positive outlook have led to his role as a speaker for the American Diabetes Association. He often visits groups and shares with them his experiences, as well as his use of the insulin pump in helping him to achieve his goals. This spring, King plans on running in the Boston Marathon.
“I know technology is going to continue to improve-especially pump therapy,” he says. “But, even if they never made another advancement in the technology they have today, I still feel that I can live a healthy, long life without serious diabetes complications.”