Congratulations on your award. What made you want to become a diabetes educator?
I feel honoured to have won as I was up against people who have been working in the industry for a lot longer than me. I started my career as a pharmacist but found I was getting asked lots of questions about diabetes so I did a graduate certificate in diabetes education. In 2009 I became the first credentialled diabetes educator and accredited pharmacist in Australia. [Kirrily lives near Adelaide.]
Tell us about the impact your diagnosis had on you.
I was 10 years old and on a family holiday, which was the only time I was allowed soft drinks. Mum noticed I was really thirsty. I’d had about two litres of Coke and kept going to the toilet during the night. She also noticed I’d lost a lot of weight and so decided to take me to a doctor. I was diagnosed with type 1 and my parents were told to drive me straight to our local hospital. I remember crying the whole way home because the doctor said I’d never be able to have a soft drink, ice-cream or any lollies again.
Were your parents supportive?
Yes, in a strong and encouraging way. I injected my own insulin right from the start and they never gave me any other option. When I was 14, I decided I’d had enough and announced I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Mum’s response was to tell me to get into the car so she could drive me to hospital where someone else would do it. I sat in the car for 20 minutes thinking how much I hated her. But in the end I backed down and accepted it. I never questioned injecting myself again. Taking that approach must have broken Mum’s heart, but it worked.
Why did you revolt?
I’ve never had very stable type 1. I struggled every single day to get the HbA1c and blood glucose levels (BGLs) that were expected and I was never able to produce those results. No one tells you when you’re diagnosed that this can happen, so I spent years feeling like a failure.
Is that something you cover as an educator?
Yes, because I see a lot of guilt being carried by people with type 1 and type 2. There is a huge misunderstanding that managing diabetes is easy: with type 1, just take your insulin and reduce your glucose and you’ll be right, or with type 2, just change your lifestyle. Clients tell me, ‘I’ve been really bad this week’, and I say, ‘No, you’ve just been at the opposite end of good. There is no bad and there is no judgement here.’ I’m careful about the language I use. I try not to use the word ‘test’ because a test is something you either pass or fail. And I never use the word ‘control’. When I ask people if they’re not monitoring because they’re worried about the results, it’s amazing how often they say yes. I tell them that at the end of the day, it’s just a number, and the only thing that really matters is that they feel well again. Diabetes is hard to live with. People don’t want sympathy, but respect, compassion and empathy go a long way.
How is your own health?
I have severe hypoglycaemic unawareness, which means I’m not aware of symptoms when my blood sugar goes low, which can be dangerous, particularly when I’m asleep. For the past three and a half years I’ve relied heavily on continuous glucose monitoring. I insert a sensor under my skin to take constant readings. It feeds information back to my insulin pump, which sets off an alarm if something is wrong, night or day. The monitoring costs about $6000 a year and it isn’t covered by insurance. I work ridiculous hours to fund it but I don’t have much choice because it keeps me alive.
Has this taken a toll on your body?
I have lost some vision. Over the past 10 years both of my retinas have haemorrhaged and I needed laser surgery. But I have an amazing healthcare team and my long-term prognosis is good. I’m very proactive about my diabetes. I get regular check-ups and act quickly if something isn’t quite right.
Are you glad you switched careers?
Being a diabetes educator is very rewarding. Pharmacy is too, but you don’t get the chance to provide the same continuity of care. However, the two roles are very compatible. Some days are harder than others, but I’m very passionate about it. That’s part of why I feel so honoured to receive the award, because I really do love my job.
To find a credentialled diabetes educator near you, visit www.adea.com.au. And for more inspiring real-life stories from people living with diabetes, purchase a subscription to Diabetic Living here, or grab a copy today from newsagents, supermarkets or online through Google Play or the App Store!