Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Fight To Survive by Caroline Cox

Every now and then I go to the library's online catalogue and I search "diabetes biography". This brings up about 20 books, including biographies of ten people (nine diabetic): Mary Tyler Moore, Frederick Banting, Ron Santo, Deb Butterfield, Zippora Karz, Nicole Johnson, Denise Bradley, Andie Dominick, Lisa Roney, and Elizabeth Hughes.

Now, all nine of these people were diagnosed long before I was, but Elizabeth Hughes was diagnosed long before anybody reading this blog was. Elizabeth Hughes was diagnosed with diabetes in 1919, when she was eleven years old. In 1919, you couldn't get a prescription for insulin. You couldn't get in a research trial and be given insulin. In fact, you plain old couldn't get insulin, unless you made it with your own damn pancreas.

Which is what she did. Using the method of eating until you peed sugar, then not eating until you didn't, she lived on the insulin she made herself, growing smaller and smaller, weaker and weaker, until she went on insulin in 1922.

I checked out The Fight to Survive: A Young Girl, Diabetes, and the Discovery of Insulin by Caroline Cox a week ago and read it through pretty quickly. I wanted to read a book about diabetes that was different. I wanted a book to make me want to celebrate injectable insulin (four years, whoop!). I wanted a book that wasn't about a celebrity or a role model.

This book is about a celebrity though; just not a celebrity of of the twenty first century. Elizabeth Hughes's father ran for president on the Republican ticket and was also a supreme court judge. During the years of her illness, her family was rich enough to hire a personal nurse for her, and they sent her to Toronto to go on insulin. And while this book doesn't really attempt inspiration, particularly not "living with diabetes inspiration", it is an attempt to understand how a preteen and teenage girl starved herself despite not being anorexic. How she managed to enjoy life in some sense at that time.

But I liked it. I liked the way that this book talks about the discoverers of insulin. Their story is told in little snippets parallel to Elizabeth's and while at first it was losing me in biographical detail, soon the details (juicy!) had me taking notes. Did you know that Banting was alcoholic? Did you know that after producing insulin and injecting it in a few patients, they had to stop because they didn't remember how to make more? And I liked Elizabeth herself, despite the fact that her experience did not have much to do with mine, as she didn't really have a lot of diabetes symptoms other than sugar in her urine. This book is really only about those years which she later wanted to forget (I can imagine wanting to put starvation behind you!). I didn't like the bits in which Cox attempts to look at the current diabetes situation, and I believe that her mortality statistics contradict what I read elsewhere. But that's not the book.

This is a book about living with diabetes without insulin. This is a book about heroes who did not behave heroically. I recommend this book because it will challenge your ideas of the history of diabetes.

2 comments:

Reyna said...

Wasn't there a chapter dedicated to her story in "Cheating Destiny"? Fascinating for sure...and the whole "starvation" diet thing seemed like torture! I'll have to check this out.

Jonah said...

Not a whole chapter, but a mention, either in Cheating Destiny or Bittersweet- I forget what I read in which because I read them close together.