Hend Al-Khater, a Northwestern University in Qatar student living with Type-1 diabetes, strives to build a community that supports diabetics and promotes social awareness about the disease.
"HEALTH NOTICE: Older adults and people suffering from chronic conditions are vulnerable groups that are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19. Protect yourself and those around you from danger. Your immune system will not help you once you contract the virus. Do not risk your life or the lives of others."
To someone who suffers from a chronic disease, what would it mean to continuously read notices like these from health organizations or even on social media? How are we, as people with chronic diseases, supposed to feel when we receive these kinds of notices? Does no one think about our anxieties as a result of these words that do nothing but put fear in us?
Of course I don’t have an answer to that, but what I know is that as a Type-1 diabetic, I have gone through so many difficult moments in my life. I was faced with people’s judgments about my health condition, their biased treatment, and their questions about the risks that I am exposed to on a daily basis in this pandemic.
Despite all that, I am not afraid.
I know I have to be careful and maintain a healthy immune system by regulating my blood sugar levels. More importantly, I have to ignore all the negative comments directed at me while I overlook people’s doubts about my health during the pandemic.
These difficult times have taken me back to the past year, when I was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes as an 18-year-old.
I was enjoying my summer vacation abroad with my family. The gentle heat of the sun was not the reason I started feeling extreme thirst and dehydration. And walking long distances and indulging in frequent physical activities were not the reasons I lost a lot of weight and felt exhausted. No, these were caused by diabetes, but I hadn’t realized it. In fact, I was ignoring the symptoms until they finally started to flare up.
My mother noticed these symptoms. She said: "I don't think what is happening with you is normal, there is something definitely wrong.” I would brush her off saying that it might be iron deficiency.
But my mother insisted that upon our return to Qatar, we should head for medical tests. It was then, to my surprise, I was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes.
I was the first member of my family to have Type-1 diabetes – I did not inherit it from any of my parents. The doctor explained to me that Type-1 diabetes is an immune system disease that occurs when the immune system attacks and damages the pancreatic cells.
“What were you eating? You used to drink a lot of soft drinks, no wonder you got this disease! Why did you neglect your health when you were so young?”
At a time when I was trying to cope with a new disease, hearing these questions and comments made matters worse. They made me feel embarrassed and guilty as I kept asking myself – was I the one who brought this disease onto myself.
So, I had to explain to others that I was unable to change my condition, and that if I had the opportunity to get rid of it, I would not hesitate, because I want to live a simple and normal life like everyone else.
After I was diagnosed with diabetes, everything changed in my life and there was no turning back. Maintaining my health has become a daily challenge that I needed to accept.
I had to be careful with carbohydrates to regulate my blood sugar levels. At first, I made many mistakes in calculating my insulin doses, which caused me to reach dangerously low blood sugar levels almost daily.
This affected my daily activities like exercising and going out with my friends, which I avoided because I did not want them to feel uncomfortable around me. It also affected my learning, as I had to always miss class for at least 15 minutes.
My mother, who was the most fearful in my family for my safety and health, would check my blood sugar levels every night to make sure I was okay. Getting my insulin doses for my meals had to be a firm daily commitment.
From that point onwards, I realized that my life would not be easy, and that I could not change reality. But what I can change is the way I deal with diabetes, as it has become a part of me. I can turn it into my strength, rather than it being my weakness. I can spread awareness about it, and not take people’s questions personally, but use their curiosity as an opportunity to explain to them the reality of this disease.
Despite the social stigma surrounding diabetes, I did not hide my disease from people. On the contrary, I started sharing my personal experiences on social media websites. My goal was to raise awareness on diabetes and encourage people with diabetes to accept it and be able to live with it.
My social media posts have had amazing responses, especially from people with Type-1 diabetes. Their comments helped me start new and meaningful friendships with them.
This amazing response also encouraged me to create a local Instagram account for diabetes. The goal was to build a community for diabetics where people could openly share their experiences, concerns, and journeys with the disease. I was able to reach a large number of followers creating a community that provides support to one another.
On World Diabetes Day, I advise everyone dealing with this disease not to pay attention to any hurtful comments from others, and not to let the disease control them. Instead I want them to be able to manage it by taking care of their health and following medical instructions to help them avoid any possible long-term complications.
I would also like to send a message to our community: Being diabetics is a reality we did not choose, it simply happened to us.
We deal with enormous responsibilities and challenges every day that prevent us from living our lives normally. So, do not pass judgments on us, but help us create a more accepting and supportive culture. Together, let us contribute to providing social support for all people with diabetes in Qatar, and help make their lives better.