When Gerda Blokker was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in her early 20s, the life expectancy for her and others with the disease was not more than 40 years old, even with insulin treatment.
Now 79, Blokker has beaten the odds and has taken part in a joint study with the Joslin Diabetes Centre, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Harvard University to find what factors make the difference in leading a long and healthy life with type 1 diabetes.
Blokker came from Holland in 1953 when she was 20 to marry Peter, who had emigrated before her. They lived in Northern B.C. for years, bringing up a family of one daughter and two sons. Even as a busy mother, Blokker kept up the regime of constant blood testing, insulin shots and carefully planned diet and exercise.
She was diagnosed with celiac disease when she was in her 30s.
“They asked me if I went through the war. What happened was the Germans took all the food, which was the soft wheat which we were used to and we got imported hard wheat from Canada, which apparently was a contributing factor. I find that diet helps me but I must be careful,” she said.
The dual diagnosis meant that Blokker had to take even more care with her diet and do most of her own cooking and baking. Luckily, she said, it is now easier to get the non-additive and organic food she needs.
Even now she must test her blood sugar level every two hours, getting up in the night to test. A new insulin pump, smaller than half her palm, which can be placed anywhere on her body, makes things easier, but Blokker must still be aware of what she eats and how exercise changes her insulin needs.
“My best exercise is walking, but I was not able to walk for two years after an accident from 10 years ago started to cause problems. I had two operations last winter and they thought I might not walk again, but I am, up to an hour a day,” she said. “The doctors think I’m wonderful and they want to know how I keep going. I can’t tell any secrets. I do try hard but I find it a difficult life, thinking about it all the time, but there are many other interests.”
Blokker does finishing quilting for the quilting group in her church, writes letters to a friend she met in kindergarten in Holland 75 years ago and has recently picked up correspondence with a high school friend from Holland, as well as keeping in touch with her five grandchildren.
“I think it is very important that people with diabetes of any type realize that while there is treatment available, they must take a lot of responsibility and they will still be able to live a good life. If you are not exactly careful, a pump doesn’t make up for your sloppiness. People don’t understand the seriousness of diabetes and the complications. Even people who do not have any diagnosis of a disease of any kind should think about how they can maintain and improve their health by good diet and healthy habits and exercise.”