Bill Pittman was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1938.
Just 17 years earlier, the disease was considered a death sentence.
Not long ago, the 78-year-old Niskayuna resident received a medal from the Joslin Diabetes Center recognizing the 75 years he’s lived with diabetes.
Insulin still was a fairly new diabetes treatment back when Pittman was diagnosed — it was used successfully on a patient for the first time in 1922. Prior to that, the only option was a starvation diet, said Matt Petersen, managing director of medical information for the American Diabetes Association.
“People would have 500-, 800-calorie diets, trying to exclude all carbs and eating just boiled vegetables and meat, and they could survive. It was a very grim sentence,” he said, noting that the diet typically only prolonged life for a couple of years.
A traditional diet brought an even harsher sentence.
“If you ate a normal diet in the face of diabetes before the introduction of insulin, you would die fairly quickly because your body just couldn’t handle the huge excess glucose levels in the blood,” Petersen explained.
First extracted from the pancreases of animals, early insulin was far from a cure. Still, it was described as miraculous.
“You had people who looked like war victims, their joints sticking out, who had been struggling on a starvation diet for a year or two, given insulin and suddenly looking healthy again, and [having] a great restoration of life,” Petersen said.
Pittman’s experience wasn’t as traumatic as that of many who came before him, but being stuck with a large needle on a regular basis wasn’t fun for him as a kid.
He began receiving insulin injections at the tender age of 3.
“I got used to it, thank goodness,” he recounted.
Even so, the disease continued to impact his childhood.
“Every time I went to something like a birthday party, I couldn’t eat what the other people ate and my parents were very worried about me. My father used to go and sit in the car outside and make sure nothing happened to me. I didn’t know this until quite a bit later,” he recalled.
At that time, the syringes and needles used for injections were boiled to sterilize them, and then reused. Eventually, Pittman began to sterilize them with alcohol.
Ensuring equipment was sterile got much easier in the 1950s, when disposable syringes came onto the market. Needles became skinnier, and thus less painful to use, because they no longer needed to withstand the rigors of reuse.
Although Pittman had the benefit of insulin from an early age, it was a long time before he was able to efficiently monitor his glucose level. At first, the only method was a urine test. Glucose shows up in the urine only when the body contains an excess.
“When we were measuring glucose in the urine, we were already measuring how bad things were wrong,” Petersen said.
Pittman recalled having some rather serious episodes over the years, when his blood sugar dropped.
“Once when I was in graduate school, I had a low blood sugar episode in the middle of the night and it went way out of control and I ended up in convulsions and broke my shoulder,” he recounted.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that an at-home method of checking blood glucose levels became available.
Fortunately, Pittman has so far escaped serious complications from diabetes. The disease can lead to heart disease, kidney damage, eye damage, neuropathy and other ailments.
The retired intellectual property lawyer said the disease has never stopped him from doing what he wants to do but has nonetheless altered the course of his life.
“It’s sort of conditioned the way I do some things. For example, I have avoided jury duty because if I got on a jury, the court would have to meet my meal schedule rather than the other way around and somehow I don’t think that would work very well,” he said with a chuckle.
In 2013, Pittman received a medal in the mail from the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston to recognize his 75 years of life with diabetes.
The center says 28 75-year medals have been awarded from 1996 to the present.
“I’m now working on the 80-year award,” Pittman said.