Insulin 100: Experiencing the highs and lows

By Charlotte Peachey

Peachey has been living with type 1 diabetes since 2014. She has spent the last six years embracing the opportunity to travel and has been working with the Diabetes Canada D-Camps program in Ontario since 2017. Charlotte loved making connections with those in the diabetes community, and she has travelled from her home in the UK to camp over the last few summers. Charlotte unsurprisingly loves to explore new places but, whilst we are all spending more time at home, she has found a love for knitting, crochet and baking!

Just six years ago, I had very little knowledge of what type 1 diabetes was, let alone what someone living with type 1 diabetes goes through on a daily basis. Fast forward to 2021 and I have experienced some of my best and most difficult moments whilst living with type 1 and have met many incredible people in the diabetes community. I am, however, still learning every day.

My diagnosis story

Whilst on holiday in Spain with a group of friends in 2014, I started to experience fatigue, increased thirst, and frequent urination. My first assumption was that these symptoms were all easily explained by the fact that I was enjoying some downtime in the hot summer sun. Despite one of my friends mentioning diabetes as a possibility, my lack of awareness of what diabetes was and no family history of type 1 diabetes led me to think it was nothing to be worried about and that my symptoms would ease up soon.

Just a few days later, my doctor recommended I go straight to the hospital for further tests and I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 23. Whilst lying in my hospital bed surrounded by unfamiliar equipment, brochures of information, and my mother’s watchful eye, the one question I had for the doctor was “can I still go on vacation to Turkey on Friday?” It was Tuesday! I was simply a young adult who couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on a vacation with friends and I didn’t understand how much I had to learn about living with type 1. Upon reflection, I also believe that my naivety in those first few days was driven by a swirling passion that this diagnosis would not affect my life significantly and that I would face it head on and overcome any challenges along the way.

Experiencing the highs

Despite my initial concern that my diagnosis would prevent me from taking a gap year to travel abroad, it was something I’d wanted to do since my teenage years, and I had to find a way! So, I sat down with a pen and paper and started to brainstorm. 

Where to go? What to do? What to pack? The usual considerations. But now I had a completely separate list regarding my diabetes management. This was new!

I started by consulting my medical team in the UK and they were supportive and happy to discuss the different aspects of my trip that I would need to consider such as accessing diabetes supplies in different countries, managing time zones, having the appropriate documentation, etc. Another aspect of the trip we discussed was how I would ensure I had the appropriate support whilst travelling solo. This resulted in me booking more group tours than I had originally planned, but it gave me the opportunity to let my tour guides or a member of the group know about my diabetes and how to support me if needed. 

This trip was one of the best decisions I could have made. From bungee jumping to rainforest treks, my diabetes supplies saw as much of the world as I did! Yes, I made mistakes along the way, but I had all of the precautions in place to manage these challenges and enjoy the trip I’d worked so hard to prepare for.

After travelling through ten countries, I decided to end my trip with a five-month stay in Canada. I had been longing to come back to Canada after a couple of family vacations to Vancouver and Toronto. It was here that I was lucky enough to be introduced to the incredible community at Camp Huronda, a summer camp for children living with type 1 diabetes.      

Overnight summer camps are relatively uncommon in the UK and so I was not expecting there to be so many summer camps catering to different communities in Canada. I applied to Camp Canada via NyQuest – an organisation that recruits camp counsellors from around the world and finds them a placement at one of the many Canadian summer camps they work with. After going through the initial interview process, Camp Canada connected me with Camp Huronda and I was surprised and excited to learn that Diabetes Canada offered overnight and day programs that specifically catered to the type 1 community.

Up to this point, I did not know many people living with type 1 diabetes, and I was, truthfully, still learning about living with it myself. From the first day of staff training, I felt welcomed by all of the staff members and I was overwhelmed at how happy everyone was to share their personal camp and diabetes experiences. In terms of living with type 1, it was the insight and honesty that I really needed, and I was introduced to diabetes technology that I was not even aware of. These discussions allowed me to understand that diabetes management is not one-size-fits-all and the importance of advocating for myself as I find what works best for me.    

Once the first campers of the summer arrived, I was surprised at how diabetes management was built into the camp schedule. Everyone simply understood what those living with type 1 were going through. I will never forget the first time I was able to experience ‘D-Camps Champs’ in the dining hall: a daily celebration of camper milestones. The elation and support that filled the room each night was overwhelming, and I knew I wanted to be a part of this community for many years to come.

Cue the many trips between the UK and Canada! Between 2017 and 2019 I worked as a Challenge Course Counsellor, the Challenge Course Head, and the Leadership Development Program Head at Camp Huronda. I loved going into each summer with new responsibilities and challenges. However, what kept me coming back were the people! Each of these roles allowed me to teach the camp participants both hard and soft skills and to encourage them to challenge themselves. Seeing the participants and staff act as positive diabetes role models for each other, sit out of an activity with a friend who was treating a low blood sugar, and encourage each other to try something new are just a few of the incredibly meaningful interactions you witness on a daily basis at D-Camps. Everyone is there to have fun but there is an underlying understanding that it is more than that. Everyone is there for each other.

As the Leadership Development Program (LDP) Head, I had the privilege of seeing the eldest camp participants excel in workshops focused on communication skills, problem-solving, conflict resolution and daily camp life. The program also provides the opportunity for the LDP participants to learn first-hand from staff members through the shadowing of program areas and cabin groups. When we can reunite around the campfire once again, many of these individuals will return as camp leaders and camp will continue to be enriched by the experiences and empathy that these individuals share.

Experiencing the lows

Those living with type 1 diabetes or those who know someone living with type 1 diabetes are well aware of the daily challenges. The ones I have experienced are personal to me, and I consider myself to still be living in the early phases of my diabetes journey and am aware there will be many more and different challenges in the future.

Being diagnosed at 23 years old came with a conflicting set of emotions. On the one hand, I was grateful that I had not needed to manage a chronic condition previously (especially during university). However, on the other hand, I knew a life without diabetes, and I struggled with the idea of that being taken away from me. This is probably why I was on vacation just a few days after diagnosis. I am grateful that I took some time to educate myself and realized that I could find a middle ground where I could continue to do the things I wanted whilst taking time to consider my diabetes and make the appropriate adjustments.

I have also learned the importance of leaning on my support network. Don’t get me wrong, I am not an open book, but I have opened up to those closest to me and I am happy to discuss living with diabetes with those who are interested to learn. I still struggle to share information with colleagues and friends, but after sitting through meetings in the past knowing my blood glucose was dropping and being too nervous to say anything, I am actively focusing on being more upfront and advocating for myself. I realize now that the way to dispel some of the common misconceptions about living with diabetes is to help educate others. The community at Camp Huronda and the insightful discussions that took place on a daily basis helped me get to this point.

As I said, all of these experiences are personal to me and I feel ready to face those challenges that come up in the future. I hope all those living with type 1 and any other chronic condition knows how strong they truly are!