‘I was tired, losing weight and constantly thirsty, but I’d no idea I had diabetes and could have gone into a coma and died’
With National Diabetes month under way, PR professional and children’s fitness expert, Kat Cassidy, a mum of three from Lisburn, tells Una Brankin how she was given a shock diagnosis.
Her thirst was unquenchable. Over the course of one working day, Kat Cassidy had drained the entire contents of the water cooler at her office. She was beset with fatigue and her size six clothes were hanging off her tiny frame.
“I put the tiredness and weight loss down to running around after my two young kids,” she recalls. “But I began to suspect something was up when I became so thirsty. Dad has type 2 diabetes, so I decided to check my sugar levels on his monitor.
“I took one look and asked him if the machine was broken. Normal sugar levels are between four and five. Mine was 38.”
There are 100,000 people currently living with diabetes in Northern Ireland.
According to the NI Diabetes Association, this number is set to rise.
Diabetes is a serious life-long health condition that occurs when the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood is too high because the body can’t use it properly.
If left untreated, high blood glucose levels can cause serious health complications.
Kat was working in public relations when she got the shock blood sugar reading; she still freelances in PR alongside teaching fitness training for children. From Lisburn, she had developed a form of gestational diabetes when she was 28 weeks pregnant with her second child, but had returned to normal after the birth.
“I re-did the sugar level test to confirm it, then stupidly waited until the next morning to go to the GP,” she says.
“He told me to get down to A&E right away. I didn’t feel sick but I could have gone into a diabetic coma.
“The doctor phoned the Lagan Valley ahead and they took me through immediately. It’s so horrible to remember all this, now.
“They took blood tests and the sugar levels came back quite high, so they told me I’d have to have an ‘arterial stab’ in my wrist to check the ketone levels. That was horrible; it left me with massive bruises on my arms.”
Ketones are water-soluble molecules produced by the liver from fatty acids in type 1 diabetes, as well as during periods of low food intake, carbohydrate restrictive diets, starvation and prolonged intense exercise. If left untreated in a diabetic, they develop into life-threatening ketoacidosis, which occurs when the body cannot use sugar/glucose as a fuel source because there is not enough or no insulin.
When a nurse confirmed that Kat had Type 1 diabetes, she was initially incredulous.
“I couldn’t believe I could develop type 1 in my 30s but the nurse said that you can get it at any age, and that they’d just diagnosed a man in his 80s,” says Kat. “When I had gestational diabetes, I was told there was a chance it would come back, but you never think it’s going to happen to you.
“My cousin, on my mother’s side was diagnosed with it at 18, and my dad has type 2, but it’s not supposed to be hereditary. It sounds terrible, but I just kept thinking it could be worse, but if I’d left it another day or another week, it would have been very dangerous. I could have died.”
There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. They’re different conditions, caused by different things, but they are both serious and need to be treated and managed properly.
Now 42, Kat lives in Lisburn with her husband, Shaun, and their children, Dylan (10), Ella (8) and Ava (6). Her diagnosis came just months after Ella had to leave day-care due to her low immune system, a result of having contracted pneumonia and bronchiolitis at eight weeks old. The child would instantly pick up every bug or germ at the creche, so Kat’s mother took over her care.
Meanwhile, Kat was back at work, stressed and dropping from size 10 to size six. After her diabetes diagnosis, she handed in her notice and went freelance, working from home. She injects insulin at night.
She says: “The needles are so fine and short, it’s no problem. The night-time injection is a slow acting one which keeps you steady all through the day. I went on a brilliant course to learn all about it, diet and so on. Everything has progressed from years ago — you can eat what you like, within reason.
“With every meal, you count the carbs (which turn to glucose after ingestion) and balance them with the insulin. A lot of people do struggle if they don’t do the calculations.
“It’s really quite manageable; it doesn’t have a major impact on my life. I used to run quite a bit, though — half marathons and so on — but I had to stop because running makes your sugar levels drop. I had to stop eating Jelly Babies.
“If you don’t stay on top of the diabetes, you can put on weight. So, I took up cross fitness instead and I loved it.”
As she was working part-time from home, Kat was able to take her children during the week to various activities, such as swimming and gymnastics.
Seeing the health benefits, she decided to train as an instructor in Cross-fitness, a strength and conditioning workout programme for children, that helps them to develop a lifelong love of fitness and prepares them for athletics, if they so choose, in later life.
With a Bachelor of Science degree in physiology under her belt, Kat now works as a Cross-fit trainer, specialising in training children and teens. She teaches more than 70 kids in a week and once instructed 570 at a local primary school in their Fitness is Fun campaign.
“The fitter you are, the less insulin you have to take,” she explains. “I actually had two type 1 diabetics in one of my classes,” she says. “There are new pumps for kids now, which they wear on their arm. They get their glucose readings from them.
“You scan it with your phone and it tells you if they’re up or down. It’s brilliant; adults have them too. With diabetes, there is a bit of trial and error involved in the beginning, but the nurses are brilliant, and there has been so much research done, it’s not hard to manage.”
Kat stresses the importance of acting on symptoms, such as excessive thirst and fatigue, as she did. One sign she missed, however, was her pale pallor.
“I was diagnosed in June and the month before, I was getting my make-up done for a formal,” she remembers. “The make-up artist remarked how white I was when she mixing the foundation — I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was really, really pale. But I’ve got my colour back and I look human again.”
Kat is also keen to praise the diabetic team which she says is “awesome”, but adds that it is “overwhelmingly under resourced, like most areas of the health service”.
“You are meant to see a consultant at the clinic every six months but recently appointments have been pushed back and back and it’s more like once a year to 18 months.
“Education is key as once armed with knowledge diabetes is not a limiting illness it’s just important to listen to your body and check glucose levels often.”
Follow Kat on katalystkids training on Instagram
What you need to know about diabetes
Type 1 diabetes
- Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition where the body attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells, meaning no insulin is produced. This causes glucose to quickly rise in the blood.
- Nobody knows exactly why this happens, but science tells us its got nothing to do with diet or lifestyle.
- About 10% of people with diabetes have type 1.
Type 2 diabetes
- In Type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or the insulin it makes doesn’t work properly, meaning glucose builds up in the blood.
- Type 2 diabetes is caused by a complex interplay of genetic and environmental factors.
- Up to 58% of type 2 diabetes cases can be delayed or prevented through a healthy lifestyle.
- About 90% of people with diabetes have type 2.
- There are a range of more rare types of diabetes — correct diagnosis and management of these types are equally important
- People living with diabetes may have to deal with short-term or long-term complications as a result of their condition.
- Short-term complications include hypoglycaemia diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), and hyperosmolar hyperglycaemic state (HHS).
- Long-term complications include how diabetes affects your eyes (retinopathy), heart (cardiovascular disease), kidneys (nephropathy), and nerves and feet (neuropathy).
Impact on overall health
- Long and short-term complications can impact on a wide variety of parts of the body including eyes, heart, kidneys, nerves and feet.
- With all complications, keeping blood glucose, blood pressure and blood fat levels under control will greatly help to reduce the risk of developing complications. Regular check-ups are essential to help manage the condition. Your risk increases with age. You’re more at risk if you’re white and over 40 or over 25 if you’re African-Caribbean, Black African, or South Asian.
Risk factors for type 2 diabetes
- You’re two to six times more likely to get type 2 diabetes if you have a parent, brother, sister or child with diabetes.
- Type 2 diabetes is two to four times more likely in people of South Asian descent and African-Caribbean or Black African descent.
- You’re more at risk if you’ve ever had high blood pressure.
- You’re more at risk of type 2 diabetes if you’re overweight, especially if you’re large around the middle.
Preventing Type 2 Diabetes
Around three in five cases of type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed. Evidence shows the best way to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes is by:
- eating better
- moving more
- reducing your weight if you’re overweight