Profiles in Type 1: Gene Thornton

Gene Thornton was in the Army in Germany when he got type 1 diabetes. It was 1965, 46 years ago, and he was 24 years old. This is his story, in his own words.

In July 1965, I was making an application for a regular Army commission, and part of the process was that I take a physical.  I knew by that time that there was something wrong because of the frequent urination and the thirst, but I was going ahead, so I took that physical.

Probably the best favor that anybody ever did for me in my life was done by the Army doctor who made the diagnosis. He told me that I had diabetes and then he said, “I’m going to take the next few days and I’m going to tell you all of the things that you’re going to need to do to take care of yourself. You can choose to listen to me and do what I advise, and probably live to be 70 years old or older, or you can ignore my advice and you’ll be dead within five years.  Your choice.” And he got up and left the room. I did take his advice, and I am now 70 years old.

They put me in the hospital and got me regulated and then immediately started processing paperwork for me to come back to the US and be discharged from the service. Obviously, it was a shock. At the time I was married and had one son, so my biggest anxiety was how it was going to affect my life and my ability to support my family.

They sent me back to Letterman Hospital because I’m from Northern California.  My father-in-law at the time put me in contact with a guy at Southern Pacific Railroad, and I wound up getting a job and working for them for 12 years.

I’m very open with my diabetes. That was a major hurdle that I had to overcome to get my first job, because Southern Pacific Railroad at the time ran their own hospital system. So they were very hesitant to hire me until I convinced them that the VA would treat my diabetes.

After I worked there for two-and-a-half years, they approached me about going through their executive management training program. As part of that training program, you had to actually go out and work on the railroad in the switching yard. So I said, “Would you be okay with me working out in the field when I have diabetes?” The bottom line was no, they were not okay with me working out there.

But that turned out to be a good move for me because I then asked them if they would be interested in financing two years of business school instead, and that they did.  I entered into an agreement with them and spent two years at the Stanford business school earning my MBA.  

In retrospect, in a lot of ways, getting diabetes was a blessing in disguise for me because it changed my career path away from the military, and I’ve had a very interesting career. I worked for the railroad, went to Stanford for an MBA, and I was farming for five or six years, and then I bought and sold three different businesses. It changed my career path to more entrepreneurial activities, and from that standpoint, I probably have been happier.

In 1991, I was also diagnosed with Graves disease. They say that they are both autoimmune diseases and very commonly go together. My doctor at the time told me, “If you’ve got to have something, you’ve got two of the best.” The fact of the matter is, we all have our burdens to bear in life. You just have to try to make the best of what you have to deal with. That’s certainly my philosophy.

I don’t feel the need to go out and prove that diabetes doesn’t affect me. My attitude and approach is more to let it bother me as little as it has to. But I don’t feel the need to prove anything because of it. That’s never been part of my motivation.

I’ve been I think pretty fortunate because my doctors tell me that I have fared reasonably well with diabetes, probably primarily because I have naturally low blood pressure. They tell me that high blood pressure with diabetes is a real bad combination. They see a little retinopathy, but very little, nothing that they’ve ever expressed any concern about. The blood flow to the extremities is quite good, and the functioning of the vital organs is strong. So there are almost no complications, yet.

When that Army doctor made the diagnosis, part of the instructions I got was to set up a schedule and change it as little as possible. Back in those days, I was taking NPH and Regular. I started out with one shot a day for several years and then went to two and then finally to four. Now I’m using aspart (NovoLog) and glargine (Lantus).  I do blood tests three or four times a day. My A1C usually runs 6.8%, in that range.

I never thought about getting a pump. Diabetes has become such a constant part of my life that in my mind, it’s probably easier to do what I’m doing now than to go through what I see as the hassles of the pump.  I’m so used to my routine that it’s like a background noise.

One of the things that I do is keep everything the same as much as I can. I’m fairly brittle, in that if I change my regime, if I exercise a little more than normal or eat more than normal, or if any of many other variables change, my blood sugar will go fairly high or sometimes low.  Essentially, I eat the same thing every day. As long as I do that, my blood sugars will normally run 90 to 140.

That’s not to say that it’s been a smooth ride the whole time. I’ve been in the hospital for too high a blood sugar and for too low a blood sugar. I was on a business trip one time in New Orleans, and when the plane landed everybody got up and left the plane except for me, and I woke up in the hospital. My MedicAlert bracelet was very helpful in that instance. I’ve had it for 40 years.

There have been two or three times when my wife has had to call the paramedics, but one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is to pay attention a little more to the signals that my body gives me.  For me, the first thing that happens when my blood sugar starts dropping low is that I start yawning. So that’s one thing that I pay attention to. What I’ll typically do then is see if I’m sweating, and that comes when I am still capable of doing something.  

I’ve been fairly active. These days I’m not quite as active as I would like, but I do a lot of walking. My theory on elevators is, I walk two flights of stairs up or three down, and I walk a half mile rather than get in my car. I’m still probably getting in ten miles a week.

Quite frankly, because of the advances in insulin that allow people to live more of a normal life, my own observation is that some of the younger people with diabetes abuse their health by trying to eat cake and sweets or drink alcohol. My own thought is that even with those advances, you can live a more normal life by having the mental discipline to establish a more rigorous regime and stick to it.  I think you’re going to be far better off. I have no proof of it, but that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

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