Riding on Insulin for 100 Years

by Miguel Alvarez

Raising awareness from Vancouver to Whistler in the GranFondo.

The Early Days

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 3 in the late 1960’s. One of my earliest childhood memories is laying in a hospital bed; scared and mostly alone. In those days, family could only visit for limited periods and no-one under 12 was allowed in. I remember being continually poked with needles. Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) at such an early age was a turning point in the trajectory of my life. Frankly, it is for anyone diagnosed with T1D at any age, adult or child. My entire life’s memory includes this serious autoimmune condition. I have no recollection of life without it. I know my parents were worried about how they were going to manage this difficult condition and how was I going to survive a lifetime with T1D. I can say with complete certainty, I would not be here today had it not been for the remarkable discovery of insulin in 1921 by Dr. Frederick Banting, Charles H. Best and J.J.R. Macleod at the University of Toronto. This is one of the most notable defining moments, not only in Canadian history, but also world history, and has ultimately saved millions of lives globally. From that point forward, type 1 diabetes was no longer a certain death sentence.

Life Sustaining Insulin

Still, 48 years on, during the time of my diagnosis, there were few resources available to manage diabetes well. Nothing like what is available today. No home blood glucose testers or continuous glucose sensors or insulin pumps. What kept me alive was a single daily injection of NPH long-acting insulin. This cloudy liquid was as valuable as oxygen, and the reality is, for everyone with T1D, this hasn’t changed. Without insulin, I would die. The significance of the discovery of insulin, less than 50 years earlier, was made quite clear to my parents. Imagine having to hold your 3-year-old child down to give them an injection every single day. I don’t envy any parent of a child with type 1 diabetes. It has to be one of the hardest jobs for any parent. Had I been born a generation and a half earlier this discovery might have been too late. But even still, the prognosis for kids like me, to live a full and rich life, was not encouraging.

In time, I learned to accept the needles as ‘normal’.  I didn’t complain because it allowed me to feel ‘relatively’ well and be a normal kid. I did normal kid things. I played with neighborhood friends, participated in sports and went to school, but diabetes always had a way of reminding you it was still there. Low and high blood sugar episodes were always a challenge and an ever-present danger, it is to this day. Extremes in blood glucose levels, either too low or too high, can cause serious problems and even death. T1D is one of the most difficult conditions to manage properly and mistakes can have serious consequences.

Though living with diabetes isn’t easy, I still feel fortunate to live in a time of so many advancements in diabetes treatment. The development of short acting insulin, while requiring more daily injections, was key to offering better control for diabetics, allowing for a better life. Again, this was made possible by that initial discovery in 1921, but insulin is a life sustaining therapy and all of us with T1D are waiting for that elusive cure, and many are literally dying waiting.

Even still, fifty-two years after diagnosis, I can honestly say that insulin has allowed me to not just survive, but to thrive. I’ve explored the world and developed many skills. As a (former) professional drummer I once played for the Canadian UN peacekeepers during the civil war in Bosnia. I’ve worked as a motorsport photographer, and I currently work in the technology sector. Most importantly, I’m a husband and father of two amazing girls. More recently, I’ve become a passionate cyclist.

Cycling with T1D

Death Valley, 2019. Supporting T1D research. Miguel is in the orange helmet.

I became addicted to cycling, but I wasn’t satisfied in just riding my bike. I wanted to do something meaningful by riding. I realized my bike could be a tool to raise awareness about T1D, and to show what people with T1D, powered by insulin, can do. I am inspired by the professional cycling team – Team Novo Nordisk – who are a team of elite athletes, all with Type 1 Diabetes. This inspiration pushed me forward. I’ve raised thousands of dollars and ridden thousands of kilometers to support type 1 diabetes research. Whether it’s in the heat of Death Valley, riding the GranFondo from Vancouver to Whistler, or the desert of Arizona, I ride to support T1D research. On my jersey is the message ‘Changing Diabetes – Inspire, Educate, and Empower’. It’s the mantra of Team Novo Nordisk. Cycling became the challenge to drive me forward, but riding with Diabetes comes with risks, and it takes a lot of extra effort to manage ever changing blood glucose levels to safely ride hundreds of kilometers. It’s more than the average cyclist has to contend with. After fifty-two years dealing with T1D, I take every opportunity to educate people on the challenges of managing it, which I document on social media, and I refuse to let T1D hold me back.

My 100 x 100

During this 100th anniversary year since the discovery of insulin and to recognize this critical milestone, I’ve committed to riding one hundred x 100 kilometers on my bike. That’s 10,000 kilometers. Every pedal stroke made possible by insulin. Fifty-two years ago, the idea of someone with type 1 diabetes riding a bike for hundreds of kilometers at a time was unheard of, but things like this and more, are made possible by this life sustaining hormone called insulin.

The top of Jubilee Pass in the heat of Death Valley. From 80 metres below sea level, to 400 meters above.

Thank you, Sir Frederick Banting, Charles H. Best and J.J.R. Macleod. Your impact on millions of people around the world is immeasurable.