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The Diabetic Sailor

I’ve been keeping it mostly to myself and my students over the last many years, but I feel I need to talk about being diabetic, being a sailor, and being a sailing instructor.  I intend to write more about this subject, so please stay tuned. 

I’m a type 1 diabetic since 1983, a sailor, and a sailing and cruising instructor since 1998.  I have a Coast Guard 100 ton License, and I teach for a number of sailing schools and do my own cruises.  I am certified as an instructor by US SAILING, the governing body for the sport of sailing in the US, and by the American Sailing Association (ASA).  And, I do trips in the Sea of Cortez, the Grenadines, California’s Northern Channel Islands, and so on.  I’m used to being away on multi-day trips and deliveries, sometimes for 2 weeks at a time, with no resources other than what I have with me. 

And with that brief intro, let me tell you more about the life of the diabetic sailor that I am.  I’ve made it work pretty well and at age 57, as of this writing, I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since college.  At 6 foot 2 and 195 pounds, my last A1c was 6.8.  I tell you, it’s the sailing that made the biggest difference. And then, there is that marvelous CGM by Dexcom.  More on the CGM by Dexcom below. 

I hope to inspire conversation and questions from very active type 1s and those who care about them.  It’s a tough thing to commit to a multi-day or multi-week journey without assistance from your doctor, the pharmacy, your spouse, friends who could help you in some way, and so on.  It is totally doable though, and I’ve been doing it.

My Story

One of my early sailing memories is being with Ed, a friend of my Dad’s, on his Hobie 16 catamaran on Lake Mojave.  When the wind came up in the afternoon and it was too rough to ski, I’d go sailing with Ed.  He had a pack of those little Snickers bars and told me that he was diabetic and sometimes needed those.  I didn’t really know what he was talking about back then.  I do now.

At age 23, I was in my first real job out of college.  I had the worst sore throat I’ve ever had, and went to see the Doctor.  After that visit, I lost 15 pounds in about a week and a half, found myself incredibly thirsty and I had to pee constantly.  Toward the end of this period, I had a bunch of problems:  I found I couldn’t focus on my face in the mirror; shaving was difficult because my cheeks were sunken; I’d eat lunch and feel like I needed to sleep for a decade; my tongue would dry out sometimes, and that is a very strange experience; I rationalized – I told myself I was thirsty because I had become dehydrated, and I had to pee all the time because I was drinking so much soda, water, iced tea, and anything I could get my hands on. 

I remember my Dad telling me about a dream or a vision he had before he was diagnosed as a Type 1:  he saw himself lying in a river with his mouth open to the upstream flow, drinking it in, and peeing constantly downstream.  That’s kind of how it felt for me.

My boss said, “Marc, you need to see a doctor.”  I did, and I was hospitalized that same day.  The doc told me that by rights, I should be in a coma.  My blood sugar was 600+, and normal is 80-120.  After 2 days they released me with a pack of syringes and some insulin, and wished me well.  That first day was scary.

Over the years I’ve gotten used to it, accepted it, and I have learned quite a bit.  I just don’t produce any insulin.  A sailor who is a nurse and was on one of my trips described my situation as a “viral onset.”  The literature these days says no one knows the cause for Type 1, but another sailor with a son who has Type 1 said she thought the research was going to point to the viral issue.  And so, here we are, even if we don’t know the exact cause.  I still have to deal with it, and so do you if you are Type 1.

And Now

The remarkable thing to me is that I feel that I am in the best shape of my life since college.  I tell you, it’s the sailing.  More to come on that subject.

Two key issues have made the difference for me in the last couple of years.  First, I got on with Kaiser Permanente for health care, made possible through my employment with OCC.  And if you are looking for a health care insurance option, I say go with Kaiser.  Go with Kaiser if you possibly can.  Second, my Endocrinologist at Kaiser recommended the Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) system by Dexcom.  I just have to say, there’s nothing like seeing a graph of where your blood glucose has been and where it’s going to help you control it.  It is this system that enabled me to get my A1c below 7.

I welcome your comments and questions.  I can’t give medical advice, but I can tell you a lot about what has worked for me.

I hope to see you on the water!

Marc Hughston