By: Radha McLean
At 81 years of age, Eva Saxl has a lifetime of rewarding accomplishments behind her—careers as a writer, teacher, philanthropist and lecturer and a history of living with type 1 diabetes for more than 60 years with no complications.
But these many achievements pale in comparison to Eva’s most impressive feat, one that literally saved her life.
Recalling this accomplishment requires looking back upon a harrowing time in Eva’s life.
The year was 1940. Eva, 19 at the time, and her husband, Victor, had just arrived in Shanghai, China, on a boat from Italy, after hastily fleeing Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Their boat transporting Jewish refugees from Europe was the last one to cross through the Suez Canal during World War II. Refugees in the true sense of the word, the Saxls had left all their friends and family behind in Prague. Once in China, they made do financially: Eva found work as an English teacher, and Victor gained employment as an engineer.
Then Eva began experiencing severe symptoms of diabetes, such as frequent thirst. Looking back, Eva realizes she had had symptoms as far back as the age of 17, but now they became unmanageable.
One night, while Eva and Victor were eating dinner, Eva fainted, her face dropping into her bowl of soup.
“I think you need to see a doctor,” Victor gently insisted.
Soon Eva was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and was put on an insulin regimen by a doctor the couple knew.
All seemed well—that is, until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the tightening Japanese occupation of China. Soon all the pharmacies in Shanghai were closed, and Eva had no legal access to insulin.
She found ways to get a little bit of insulin every day, such as buying it on the black market. But that was not the safest option; someone she knew had died from using the black market insulin.
“I love you so much. I won’t let you die. You will live!” Victor continually promised.
Eventually, the young couple decided to get insulin another—albeit highly unconventional—way: make it themselves.
Neither Eva, a gifted linguist fluent in five languages, nor Victor, a textile engineer, knew much about the ways of scientific research. But that didn’t stop them.
They got their hands on the book “Beckman’s Internal Medicine,” which described the methods that Dr. Frederick Banting and Charles Best—the discoverers of insulin—first used to extract insulin from the pancreases of dogs in 1921.
But money was scarce during that time, and so were animal pancreases. The couple would knit stockings and sell them for money that allowed them to purchase the pancreases of buffaloes. A Chinese man was kind enough to lend them a small laboratory, where they attempted to extract insulin from the pancreases. After much work, they finally produced a brown-colored insulin. After testing the insulin on rabbits for more than a year, Eva cautiously tried it on herself. It worked!
In the Jewish ghetto where they were living, many other people with type 1 diabetes were also in dire need of insulin. Eva gave her insulin to two boys in a nearby hospital who were in diabetic comas. Thanks to Eva’s insulin, those men are still alive.
Soon the word about Eva’s insulin spread. People would come to her requesting a dose, and she would ask that each individual use no more than 16 units a day because the quantity was limited. And she didn’t require payment; instead, she would tell people they could donate money to the Chinese man who had lent them the lab to conduct their research. In all, she helped save the lives of more than 400 people with the insulin they had made.
Eva remembers the day they were liberated by the Americans. She cried tears of joy when a doctor from an American ship gave her a case of insulin to distribute to people who needed it.
After the war, Eva and Victor left China for New York City, where their lives began to improve. Eva, who had by then established a career as a reporter, continued to write for a Chinese-language newspaper (she interviewed Rita Hayworth at one point) and then found work as a teacher.
Eva’s story of survival and saving lives during the war caught the attention of Elliott P. Joslin, MD, founder of the Joslin Diabetes Clinic in Boston, Massachusetts. The two befriended each other, and soon Dr. Joslin began inviting Eva to give lectures to groups of children and diabetes organizations. Long after Dr. Joslin’s death, Eva continued to tell her tale, giving lectures around the world to the likes of the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation of Chile. Eva didn’t ask to be paid for her talks, although she says she could have. “I was on a mission [to help others] after what had happened to me [in Shanghai],” she says.
In 1968, Victor passed away and Eva moved to Santiago, Chile, where her brother had emigrated during the war.
Today, Eva’s house in Santiago bears witness to her full—and certainly admirable—life. Medals of honor from organizations around the world adorn her living room.
Controlling her diabetes has never ceased being a challenge. With an A1C of 7%, Eva takes three kinds of insulin (Humalog, Regular and NPH) and eats a low-carbohydrate diet. Her small pleasures: eating fruit and maintaining her optimistic attitude.
“I am a very ‘up’ person,” Eva says. “I have had an amazing life. I am grateful.”