After All These Years: Robert “Bob” Cleveland, Age 87, Living With Type 1 Diabetes for 82 Years

Not to be outdone by his older brother Gerald (the oldest livingperson with diabetes most of his life), Bob Cleveland is believed tobe the longest-living person with type 1 diabetes to date afterGladys Dull, who beats him by less than a year.

Bob was diagnosed in1925, shortly after insulin became commercially available.Certainly, you can attribute a part of his successful life span toinheriting good genes, but there is much more to his longevity thanthat.

Although he was only five when diagnosed with diabetes morethan four-fifths of a century ago, Bob still remembers the day hewent into the hospital. "I thought I was going to the hospital todie," he admits. Although he had wasted away to skin and bones, thedoctors still initially put him on a "starvation diet" to controlhis blood sugars, a standard treatment in the pre-insulin era.Luckily for him, insulin had just been discovered in 1921 and wasavailable to treat him. Once the doctors got his insulin dosesadjusted and were able to put him on a diet to gain some of theweight back, he was sent home.

Bob's early years with diabetes were particularly challenging. Heremembers things being "touch and go" for a time, with his motherpulling him out of diabetic comas caused by low blood sugars whiletrying to take care of his three siblings. "There was no way toreally test for blood sugar levels back then, so everything wasstrictly a guess," he recalls. He and his mother realized thepositive effects of exercise early on, though, even while relying onineffective and inaccurate urine testing methods.

"I was taking lotsof insulin, but Mom would cut back on my doses when I exercised alot. She could tell by testing my urine. If there was no sugar init, she cut back my dose." (To her credit, her methods of insulinadjustment were well ahead of the standard medical practice at thetime.) To this day, Bob is an avid cyclist, often riding twentymiles or more at a time, even though he can't walk nearly as far ashe used to due to weakness in his leg muscles. When he rides, he cansometimes go all day without taking any insulin other than hisnormal dose of long-acting basal insulin (Lantus), and yet his bloodsugars stay good all day long.

Bob is proud of having diabetes and likes to help anyone he can, butin his earlier years, he didn't feel free to talk about it. In fact,for most of his life, he says, diabetes was a "disease that nobodytalked about." He found out the hard way that potential employerswere often less than enamored with his diabetic state. He majored inaccounting in college, but lost several jobs after admitting on theapplication form that he had diabetes.

As a result, he found himselfhaving to lie about his physical condition in order to get hired."After I heard several times, 'we'll call you if and when there's anopening,' I stopped admitting that I had diabetes. I finally got inas an accountant with General Motors in Syracuse, but I had to lieabout my disease." Diabetes couldn't have been much of animpediment, since he went on to have a long and productive career inhis chosen field, eventually becoming the supervisor of GM's generalaccounting section for many years.

Bob attributes his continuing good health to a combination ofgetting plenty of exercise, being cautious about his diet, keeping aconstant check on his blood sugars, and having a loving andsupportive spouse (he has been married almost six decades to hiswife Ruth). His longevity and good health have been acknowledged,along with his brother Gerald's, by both the Joslin Diabetes Centerand Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, who erected up a monument to thebrothers in Indianapolis, Indiana, a couple of years ago.

"I reallyfeel blessed living as long as I have. Even doctors at the JoslinDiabetes Center have never talked to anyone who's had diabetes aslong as I have." Maybe Bob's goal should be to become the firstperson in the history of diabetes to have it for a full century. Ifanyone can do it, he can!

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