HJ/EDMay 8, 2006

Diet, exercise, insulin must pull together for diabetes control

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Oliver Johnson of Cokato calls his diabetes management his “three skittish horses.”

When Oliver developed Type 1 diabetes as a young man 67 years ago who had farmed with horses, he noticed managing the diet, exercise and insulin was similar to getting horses to pull together, he said.

Oliver, 85, has his diabetes so under control, his three-month average for glucose levels is in the excellent range, his wife, Melba, said. He still tends a garden and 2,000 spruce and pine trees, and mows around them, as well as working at his hobby, wood carving.

“Sure, I have had frustrations with it,” Oliver said from the family farm about eight miles north of Cokato.

The previous day his glucose levels were too low. Now his glucose levels are too high, he said.

And the change appears to have no reason, added Melba, a former fifth grade teacher at Cokato Elementary School.

“It has been a day-to-day challenge,” Oliver said. “You need to hang in there. It doesn’t take a vacation.”

Oliver remembers well how he was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 18 years old. “I was very ill,” he said.

In the spring of that year he weighed 170 pounds. He had a chance to work at the Northland Canning factory, what is now Faribault Foods, for 33 cents an hour. During the Great Depression, that was good money, so Oliver never told anyone how sick and weak he was.

“I just couldn’t drink enough water,” he said.

He had to force himself to work. He lost so much weight, by the end of the summer he weighed 123 pounds. Oliver finally went to Dr. Peterson in Cokato.

“My prognosis wasn’t very bright,” Oliver said.

A young girl who also had diabetes had died the night before. Dr. Peterson immediately put Oliver in the University Hospital. He was put on a strict diet. “I had to measure everything, even lettuce,” Oliver said.

The diet he had in 1939 included a lot more fat than what diabetics have today, he said.

At breakfast, for example, Oliver ate bacon, eggs and cream on cereal. Today Oliver’s typical breakfast includes a slice of toast and oatmeal with skim milk, he said.

Oliver said he’s noticed many people still have misconceptions about diabetes. They believe all that is needed is for a diabetic to avoid sweets, he said.

“Starches raise blood sugar more than sugar,” Melba said.

She said that when Oliver was young and attended the frequent parties that young people have, he had the reputation of being unusually disciplined. Oliver drank only coffee, and never touched the cake and cookies, Melba said.

Oliver accepted at an early age that he would need to “try the best he could” to control his glucose levels for the rest of his life.

After Oliver left the hospital in 1939 he was put on protoman zinc, a slow-acting insulin not made anymore. He injected himself daily with that for the next 15 years.

Oliver also monitored his glucose levels by testing his urine four times a day for the next 20 years. He added a benedict solution to the boiled urine. If the solution turned red his glucose level was too high. If it turned blue, his glucose level was stable, he said.

Oliver also got plenty of exercise working. He raised 2,000 turkeys a year, milked cows, constructed many of the buildings on the farm by himself, and kept 400 hens.

Although Oliver’s condition was serious in 1939, he feels fortunate there were medical advances to control the condition. Prior to 1920 if someone was diagnosed with diabetes, it was a heartbreaking death sentence, Oliver said he was told by a medical researcher from Toronto.

After doctors in Germany had discovered the cells in the pancreas that produced the insulin hormone in the next decade, there still was nothing they could do with the information. Finally, medical researchers found a way to extract insulin from a beef pancreas. They tried it out on a dog and it worked, Oliver said.

When a 12-year-old boy went into a diabetic coma, they used the beef insulin on him and he recovered. “It encouraged millions of diabetics,” Oliver said.

Now pharmaceutical companies make insulin from recombinant DNA in laboratories instead of taking it from animals, Oliver said.

For awhile, Oliver was fitted with a pump that automatically put insulin into his system. “I don’t think it benefitted me that much,” he said.

Oliver developed scar tissue in his abdomen from the pump, Melba explained.

However, Oliver injects himself with the new hypodermic needles that are so tiny they don’t hurt, he said.

He uses Novalog, a fast-acting insulin taken right before he eats, and Lantus, a slow-acting insulin that mimics the way the pancreas puts insulin into the body, he said.

Oliver monitors his glucose six times a day with a FreeStyle unit. A piece of tape in the unit absorbs a small amount of blood and then shows his glucose level on a display screen, Melba said.

Oliver also keeps informed on the latest diabetes research. He subscribes to the “Diabetes Forecast,” magazine, for example.

Scientists are studying how the gila monster lizard in Arizona is able to restore its own insulin producing cells in its pancreas, in hopes that someday scientists can duplicate the effect in humans, Oliver said.

There’s no cure yet, “but one can live with it,” Oliver said.


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