Living with diabetes

Mary Banotti on diabetes...

Diabetes has not stood in the way of Mary Banotti managing a hectic schedule as an Irish MEP.

Most people look on diabetes as an illness. Mary Banotti, MEP does not. She is one of Ireland's estimated 66,000 diabetics, some 13,000 of whom are insulin-dependent and require regular injections.

Diagnosed in 1982 at the age of 43, Mary says, "I don't call it an illness, because I don't feel ill. Diabetes is essentially a very well controllable, but incurable condition". It was during a conference in Oxford that she developed an absolutely raging thirst. "I kept thinking it was because the air was dry or something, but as I'm a nurse, after two days I began to worry that it might be something more serious than just feeling thirsty", she says.

A doctor cousin in England did a blood test and quickly confirmed that Mary had very high blood sugar levels. "I came home immediately and went to see the late, great Ivo Drury. I'll never forget sitting in the middle of that busy outpatients clinic in the Mater while he processed probably 300 diabetics that morning. "When Dr Drury told me that I was diabetic, I was both frightened to death and in complete denial. It took me a couple of hours to absorb the information".

There is a family history of diabetes on both sides of Mary's family.

Mary thinks that her terror and denial was quite a common reaction that people have when they are told that they have diabetes. "When I was a student nurse, the care and management of diabetes was a very different thing to what it is now. It consisted of very anxious people who just didn't seem to be able to think of anything except their condition.

"I certainly couldn't see myself as living that sort of a life, so once I got over the shock, I quickly learned how to manage my condition. Then, because I began to feel so much more energetic and better, the pluses in my life were more evident than the minuses".

Mary's attitude to the whole thing is to let it interfere as little as possible with her life. Within a year of her diagnosis, she bad run for the Senate in a punishing by-election in the centre of Dublin and then, two years later, was elected to the European Parliament.

One would imagine such a schedule would take its toll on even the fittest person's health, but Mary made it through with flying colours. "In fact, I looked so much better that someone who knew about my diabetes came up and said, "You look so great that I wouldn't mind catching it if I kissed you!"

An insulin dependent diabetic, Mary has to take insulin injection twice a day. Insulin is given free to all diabetics, which she believes is a generous State benefit. She gets several weeks supply at a time and brings it with her on her travels.

"On occasions we have extremely long votes at the European Parliament. Sometimes I realise that, if the vote is going to go on for another three-quarters of an hour, I will be in trouble due to low blood sugar levels, so I always carry glucose tablets for emergencies".

Mary travels to Brussels on Mondays and tries to get back by Thursday night to do constituency work on Fridays and over the weekend. Her work schedule is often more punishing however. "The past 10 days have included six flights and one long train journey from Paris to Brussels", she says, adding that she reads newspapers and copious documents while travelling.

Mary has never had reason to consult a doctor abroad, "Management of diabetes is really a personal responsibility, except when things go very badly wrong", she says. "My biggest problem is my diet, I break most of the rules because of temptation. As Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist anything but temptation"

"Of course, because of my nursing background 1 feel more guilty when I break the rules as I know that they are there in the patient's best interests". Mary freely admits she is not a good patient Her doctor chastises her for not having enough hospital check-ups. "I don't get enough rest or holidays, My doctor does try to encourage me but - unlike politicians at home - in the EU, our annual holidays are less than six weeks".

Mary is anxious that diabetics should live as normal a life as possible, emphasising that her life as a politician is in itself abnormal. "Very few people would, for example, travel as much, or as widely as I do, or have to deal with a very busy constituency. "Once I absorbed into my own life the idea that I had something that I was going to have to live with, simultaneously came this determination that it would not hold me back, but would give me an added incentive. "

"Attitudes certainly have changed quite considerably over the years", she concludes. "I've made no secret of the fact that I am diabetic and I know that this has influenced people who have told me how encouraged they were by the way I coped".

Facing up to fears

Prior to becoming an MEP, Mary had a television programme and her greatest fear was that something would happen while she was on air. It never did, but it was a fear that got into the back other mind because she felt more exposed in front of the public. Today she experiences no such fears while speaking in the European Parliament. Stress can affect a lot of illnesses, but Mary feels that it can also be a positive thing, as a certain amount of stress is exciting, dynamic and interesting.

It’s a balancing act

On one side, food increases the amount of sugar in the blood.

On the other side, exercise and insulin lower the blood sugar level by allowing sugar to be used for energy.

Urine and blood sugar tests can be used to monitor the blood sugar balance. when the blood sugar is properly balanced, the diabetic person will feel well and should be able to do everything a non-diabetic person can do.

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