Given you were diagnosed at age three, what childhood memories do you have of diabetes?
When I was little, I needed two injections every day. My mum would chase me around the house and pull me out from under the table to give me them. I hated needles and was so afraid of them.
I also remember coming home from a diabetes camp as a teenager and showing my parents that I could inject myself, on my own. They were so proud. Some kids kick their first goal in footy or get their driver’s licence and this becomes the benchmark moment of their childhood. For me, it was injecting insulin on my own for the first time.
Did diabetes ever hold you back?
As a teenager, I struggled to play team sports because of low blood sugars. Then, one day, Mum saw an ad for a wilderness expedition. I went along and never looked back.
Why did adventure sports have so much appeal?
I have always had a hunger to push my body. It’s probably a self-esteem thing tied in with having diabetes – needing to push myself harder, just to show I can do it. My diabetes has been the driving force and I owe it some thanks, as it has motivated me to try some amazing things.
Tell us about some of your trips.
I’ve climbed the East Buttress of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California, which is more than 500 metres of vertical granite. I’ve also travelled the world as a senior adventure guide, been a counsellor at a diabetes camp in the US, and led expeditions across Tasmania and the Kokoda Track in PNG. When I was in my 20s, clinicians advised against intensive exercise for people with type 1, as they were worried about the strain it placed on the body. Sometimes it took a toll, but that was because I wasn’t managing my diabetes properly.
Why weren’t you looking after yourself?
I was in denial – not testing my blood sugars regularly and doing my best to believe I was fine. I didn’t want diabetes to make me any different from anyone else and I kept it a secret until just a couple of years ago. Only my family and a few friends knew about it. My dad died of diabetes-related complications when I was 10. For most of my adult life, I feared that I would share the same fate. That was probably a large part of why I kept it to myself.
Did keeping your diabetes quiet ever put you in danger?
In my 20s, I went climbing in the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales. It was hard work and a big walk in and out. Then, I made one of the stupidest diabetes decisions
of my life – I ate a meat pie for tea and had a beer. I fell into a coma while sleeping on a stranger’s floor. I woke up three days later in hospital. That almost killed me.
Do other hypos stand out?
I did a climb in the Southern Alps in New Zealand when I was 19 and had a really bad hypo on that trip. A helicopter was called in, but then my sugars came back to normal range. I was determined to keep going, so I convinced the pilot to go without me. I had to walk down that glacier recovering from a hypo, and that was a lesson learned. I then tripped as I was walking into a hut and put an ice axe into my face!
How bad did your health get?
My body started to feel really tired and my mental health suffered, too. I ended up with depression. I had an HbA1c of nine to 10 and was having irregular hypos, but I never really associated these things with poor management of my diabetes. In trying to disown the diabetes, I didn’t read it in a way that helped me make good decisions.
So, how did you turn your health around?
Four years ago, a diabetes nurse highlighted a link between diabetes and depression. No-one had ever mentioned it to me. I was always the get-up-and-go guy, so I never associated myself with mental illness, or depression with diabetes. The nurse suggested insulin pump therapy as an alternative to needles. That’s when I really reclaimed my life.
The pump kept my HbA1c level consistently in an appropriate range and I had good control of my diabetes for the first time ever. My depression left and I found myself back to the guy I used to be – outgoing, adventurous and raring to perform. My diabetes nurse told me, ‘David you are going to live well and to be an old man. Your father would be proud.’ I cannot put into words how deeply personal that was. The reconciliation I made with my diabetes that day has continued.
Do you worry about your kids being diagnosed?
My wife Rachel and I have two kids, Joshua and Charlotte. The idea of them getting diabetes has weighed on my mind a lot, particularly given that my dad had it. I’d often bring it up with my diabetes team, and they’d say there is always a chance, but don’t worry about it. Worrying doesn’t achieve anything, so I don’t do it any more. Diabetes care in this country is so good, that even if it did happen, we would just manage it.