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The Healthy Living Magazine

Jim West: Knowledge to Share

By Allison Tsai ,

In 1944, type 1 diabetes meant animal insulin, glass syringes sterilized in boiling water, and a large needle sold with a sharpening stone and a wire to clean it out. “Things were very rustic in the beginning,” says Jim West, 85, who was diagnosed at age 11. While he didn’t know it at the time, his parents were told that his life expectancy was about five to 10 years. You’d never have guessed it.

West was active, riding bikes with friends in his neighborhood. If he had to take a minute before get-togethers to inject his insulin, his friends would call him “Pin Cushion” or “Never Ready,” which West took in stride. Humor was a way for him to cope with diabetes and frequent bouts of hypoglycemia.

Those wild swings in blood glucose prompted West to embrace advances in diabetes tech. He’s been using an insulin pump since 1996 and was an early adopter of the continuous glucose monitor (CGM). “I needed all the help I could get,” says West, whose active lifestyle made glucose management a challenge.

But over the years he’s learned a thing or two about problem-solving. As a professional scuba diver, collecting geological samples off the New Jersey coast for marine laboratories, he’d carry juice or syrup in plastic bottles under his wet suit.

Downhill skiing required another adjustment. “I had to bring [glucose sources] that wouldn’t freeze on the mountain,” he says. “You just figure things out as the problem comes along.”

As he’s aged, scuba and skiing have fallen by the wayside, but cycling remains a big part of West’s routine. He’s been active in the Fort Worth, Texas, ADA cycling fundraiser Tour de Cure® since its inception 12 years ago, leading the Rusty Needles as team captain. In 2014, as the oldest Tour de Cure participant in that area, he struck up a friendship with the youngest participant, Grace Kendzierski, when she was just 4 years old.

Having lived with diabetes for 74 years, West has been able to impart a fair bit of wisdom to his young friend. Perhaps his biggest piece of advice was to embrace technology, something Grace’s family was hesitant about at first. “Now she has a CGM and pump, which she controls on her own,” he says. It’s a far cry from the tools West had as a child, and he’s grateful for the improvements for both himself and kids like Grace. “They make management a lot easier,” he says.