A Diabetes Patient Recalls the Early Years of Treatment

By Mary Green

In the early years of the 20th century, while European researchers were working diligently to unravel the mystery of diabetes, Elliott P. Joslin, M.D., an American pioneer in the treatment of the disease, was concurrently performing experimental work on how people with diabetes burn food as fuel, observing the effects of fasting and different amounts and combinations of carbohydrates, proteins and fats on diabetes. In 1918, Dr. Joslin published the first comprehensive guide for patients, which become a national bestseller—A Diabetic Manual for Doctors and Patients—and, in 1922, he oversaw the administration of the first trial of insulin in New England.

Meanwhile, the Boston-based diabetes clinic Dr. Joslin founded in 1898 grew in size and stature over the years and today is the world’s largest diabetes research center, diabetes clinic, and provider of diabetes education.

One of the early beneficiaries of the Joslin Clinic’s care was Gerald Tays.

Diagnosed with the condition in 1953 at age 12, after losing more than two dozen pounds in a single month, Tays’ illness shook his family to its core. He was a fit and active young boy, there was no history of diabetes amongst family members, and only a few months prior his older brother had died suddenly from a previously diagnosed aneurysm that had gone untreated. With the family’s unthinkable loss still fresh in everyone’s mind, Gerald’s aunt sprang into action and suggested that Gerald be taken to Joslin Clinic for treatment, where he was assigned to the care of Dr. Priscilla White.

His memories of the legendary Dr. Joslin, and the equally accomplished Dr. White, whose pioneering pregnancy studies showed the importance of strict blood glucose control and early delivery for fetal survival, are as fresh as the day he was diagnosed. “Although at the time I wasn’t seen by Dr. Joslin as a patient, he was very present in the clinic, very focused, very stern and very forceful,” Tays recollects. And while Tays found Dr. White’s gentile bedside manner more suitable to his adolescent-driven independent streak, the treatment he underwent was another matter entirely.

“We were just a step beyond the stone age,” Tays says. “There were no disposable items, no plastic items and it was difficult to travel.” In fact, Tays says the only syringes available to inject his life-saving insulin were glass syringes that had to be sterilized in alcohol after every use, and the large needles of the syringes had to be sharpened on stone. “To this day, I have a glass cigarette holder and also a metal tray from my aunt that we used for soaking my syringes,” he notes. “And, I had to go to the hospital the first thing every Saturday morning to get my blood glucose tested.”

Still, although his sports coaches treated him more gingerly following his diagnosis (as did his family members), his diabetes treatment regimen was successful and Tays continued to lead an active lifestyle, ultimately becoming a public park ranger, an occupation he held for decades until his retirement to Edmonds, Washington, a small town 20 miles outside of Seattle on the shores of Puget Sound.

Today, at 73, he marvels at the advancements in diabetes care over the decades that have made self-care easier, from early urine test strips for sugar to new sensors such as the continuous glucose monitoring system (“that testing equipment is the best”).

Over the years, Tays has managed to avoid many of the complications long-term diabetes patients experience and considers himself fortunate. “When I look back over my life as a diabetic, there have been very few peaks and valleys,” he says. “But my life has been based on one word: moderation. The one thing I would say to younger diabetes patients is, simply, be reasonable.”