When Dee Brehm was diagnosed in 1949 with type 1 diabetes, her prospects were not bright: a permanent chronic condition, a reduced life span, potentially devastating complications and perhaps no children. She married Bill Brehm in 1952, and they began a partnership knowing that together they would have to manage her disease. Dee subsequently defied the dim outlook for her life: She has two children and six grandchildren, and she has surpassed the half-century mark with this disease having been spared the ordeal of complications.
When Dee was diagnosed at 19, she was attending college in Michigan. So she had to assume full responsibility for her day-to-day care at a time when care was a challenge. The tools for managing diabetes were primitive: her glass syringes had to be boiled and their needles sharpened on emery cloth, and the only means of measuring her blood sugar was a urine test that required almost required chemistry lab-level procedures to process.
Dee, now a resident of McLean, Virginia, says, “I was blessed with having a committed husband and partner in my diabetes care all these years. I probably wouldn’t be alive were it not for him. However, he is very careful not to take away my independence, although we stay in close communication, and I report my tests to him wherever he is. Together, we decide on the adjustments needed to respond to the inevitable lows and highs. Two heads are better than one in this business. His vigilance is vital in helping me control my disease."
Dee and her husband have contributed $44 million to research a cure for diabetes
The couple appears to be an unbeatable team. Some time after she passed the 50-year “gold-medal” milestone with diabetes, he asked her one evening when she was preparing dinner what he could do to help her. In response, she said, “You can find a cure.” Bill was silent for a moment, and then simply said, “Okay.”
With that goal in mind, the Brehms began an odyssey in 1999 to learn about the work being done to cure diabetes, which ultimately led to their making a proposal to the University of Michigan to create a center devoted to finding a cure for type 1. They donated $44 million of their own funds to make the center a reality and to apply new tools to facilitate the search process – most most notably robust information science and systems analysis. Their goal is a cure in Dee’s lifetime, which is to be accomplished through “a multifaceted, frontal assault” to determine the causes of type 1 diabetes and how to cure it. Their approach depends heavily on collaboration and breaking down the administrative barriers that inhibit rapid progress.
Fears of Hypoglycemia
Despite being complication-free, Dee does not have an easy time with her diabetes. She tends to be brittle, causing her to constantly fear the onset of severe hypoglycemic episodes. To help her understand her trends and to determine adjustments in her program, she has kept meticulous records of her insulin doses and vital signs, including her weight and blood pressure. She is proud of her detailed records and notes that she has missed writing down a test result only once in 58 years. For her, discipline is key. Dee has taken well over 100,000 insulin injections and has tested her blood glucose more than 65,000 times since first getting a glucose meter to use at home.
The Joslin Diabetes Center has undertaken a study of patients who have survived with type 1 for more than 50 years. There are likely to be only about 500 to 600 individuals in the United States who have been so fortunate. Some of them, like Dee, have not developed complications. Dee’s records are an important part of the study, so all her attention to detail is paying off in ways that might help others. It is important to learn what has protected these people because that knowledge could contribute to the search for a cure. All in all, there is no question that we all appreciate the efforts and devotion of this couple on behalf of everyone afflicted with type 1 diabetes.