Kathryn Ham Celebrates 80 Years With Diabetes
In honor of Diabetes Forecast magazine’s 70th anniversary, we’re kicking off a series of profiles about people whose lives have been touched by diabetes—and who have touched the diabetes community.
When she was 7 years old, Kathryn Ham fell ill and was taken to a children’s hospital in Ontario, Canada. There, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. The year was 1937.
Ham, now 88 and living in Boston, remembers the details most important to a child: “I was on a very strict diet, which was really bad,” she says. “I couldn’t eat bread, and my grandmother made me bran muffins that … tasted like cardboard.”
Today, experts agree there are no forbidden foods. People with diabetes learn what fits into their management plan. “I’m able to eat more regular foods than when I was first diagnosed,” Ham says.
Decades before meters and continuous glucose monitors allowed people with diabetes to check their blood glucose in seconds, Ham checked her glucose by mixing urine and a special solution, and boiling it over a gas burner. “If it stayed blue, then I was all right, but if it turned orange [it] was indicating sugar.”
Her treatment regimen consisted of a single shot of regular insulin every day. “The needles were quite large,” Ham remembers. Her mother would sharpen the needle on a pumice stone before each injection. Today, she takes four insulin injections daily but, thankfully, the needles are much smaller.
Finding and connecting with other people with diabetes was harder in the 1930s, too. The only other person with diabetes in Ham’s town was an adult, and there weren’t many opportunities to meet kids with diabetes elsewhere. “I didn’t go to any summer camps like they have [now],” she says. “There was nothing like that for me. I remember being very lonely and isolated.”
Thanks to careful management of her diabetes, Ham has been able to live a healthy life with diabetes for 81 years. “I’m fairly active, I still drive, and I live alone,” she says. She regularly speaks about her life with diabetes through the Joslin Diabetes Center’s Medalist Program, which recognizes people who have lived 25, 50, 75, or 80 years with insulin-dependent diabetes. “I’m one of11 people who’ve gotten the 80-year medal,” Ham says. “I don’t think of it as a big deal, but apparently it is.”
Thinking back on her life with diabetes, Ham believes that the struggle of diabetes management was worth the reward. “It’s very important to follow your doctor’s orders. It’s very important to watch your nutrition. It’s very important to exercise and have an active life and not dwell on the isolation and loneliness and the discipline that you need to exercise as a person with diabetes,” she says. “And if you do this, you can have a full life.”