A Jamaican vacation—more specifically, a snorkeling trip—changed Duane Johnson's life. In one day he was hooked. Back home in Chicago, Johnson decided to learn to scuba dive.
"One of the first forms you have to fill out is a medical form," he says. "One of the first questions is, Are you a diabetic?"
His answer: yes. Diagnosed at 24, Johnson had a couple of years of type 1 diabetes under his belt when he decided to dive. "I was still getting used to diabetes, and my blood sugar wasn't in that great of control," he says. "So when I asked my doctor, he originally said no, not until I got my blood sugars down."
Johnson, now 39, took the order seriously. He changed his diet and amped up his exercise in order to lower his blood glucose. Six months and a four-day scuba class later, Johnson was a certified diver. He's since become a diving instructor, though he hit one snag: The first training agency he applied to refused to accept him because of his diabetes.
Diving with diabetes is not without its challenges: Most diabetes devices don't work so far underwater and haven't been tested under such high pressure. Though Johnson wears an insulin pump regularly, he takes it off while diving.
He tests his blood glucose five to six times from wake-up until just before he dives. Though he may be disconnected from an insulin source for varying periods of time while diving, Johnson says his blood glucose doesn't skyrocket often.* Lifting heavy scuba gear and swimming both help keep his level steady.
He's never been low during a dive, he says, thanks in part to his focus on prevention. "If my blood sugars are trending down [before a dive] and I'm doing a short, shallow dive, I might eat a banana," he says. "If I'm doing a longer dive, I'll have a granola bar." He has briefed his dive buddies on hypoglycemia and what to do in case he needs glucagon.
Johnson says his family and regular diving pals have been supportive because they trust his approach to diving safety. "Over the years, I've had a couple people express concern," he says. "The problems I've experienced are more in the diving community."
Thankfully, that community has become more accepting of other scuba divers with diabetes—as it should be, says Johnson. "Each person with diabetes is different and how they manage their diabetes is different," he says.
*Typically, it's recommended to be disconnected from a pump for no more than an hour because the body needs background insulin around the clock.
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