Poulsbo woman an inspiration to others living with diabetes
February 18, 2011 · 1:15 PM
By BRIGETTA JOHNSON
Special to The Herald
POULSBO — When, over a Reuben sandwich at the Junction Diner in Poulsbo recently, I overheard that Marlene Kennedy is 65 years old and felt the need to share the news.
As a former healthcare professional, I knew I was learning about a rare and distinctive accomplishment that could inspire many other people.
Why is Kennedy’s 65th birthday so impressive? Because as a young girl, she was told by doctors that she shouldn’t expect to celebrate her 33rd birthday.
At the tender age of 12, Kennedy was diagnosed with Juvenile or Type 1 diabetes, so at 65 she has far exceeded her life expectancy. She has successfully managed her diabetes for 53 years. And she hasn’t just survived, she has thrived.
Knowing first-hand the complications that insulin- dependent individuals face, I was well aware of the devastating course Kennedy’s life could have taken. So, naturally, I was very curious about what she had done to maintain her health.
Diabetics can face a range of health problems, including: fatigue, shakiness, unconsciousness, blindness, numbness, poor wound healing, gangrene, multiple and progressive amputations, kidney failure, dialysis, heart disease, coma and more. So, even if Kennedy thought she would live to see her 33rd birthday, she also understood it wasn’t likely going to be an easy road getting there.
All of this had to be some of the worst possible news a 12-year-old could get. Even after my exposure to so many individuals throughout my professional life who struggled with this disease, I still got choked up when I considered what she must have felt as a young girl when she received such news.
How did she cope? What was different about Kennedy?
Well, for a start, she bravely took the news on the chin. She learned how to prick her own, tender 12-year-old fingertips and squeeze out enough blood onto the test strips in order to test her blood sugar level several times a day. She considered her diet and refused ice cream cones when everyone else carelessly gobbled them down without a second thought. She exercised regularly and carefully calculated how much insulin she would need to stick and inject into the fold of skin on her tummy or her upper arm every morning and evening and in between, as needed.
As the early years of her young life with diabetes passed, she wondered, with the same dreams as any young girl, what course her life would take. Would she fall in love? Would she marry? Would she be able to have a career? Would she have any children? Should she have any children?
Most folks would consider aspects of her life normal for a healthy woman her age. She married her first husband and gave birth to a baby girl, who is now a grown woman with her own kids, also living in Kitsap County. She worked at the same job for 25 years. Kennedy and her daughter’s father shared their life together happily for 20 years before he passed away from cancer. Shortly thereafter, she met her current husband, Doran, on a blind date. Today, she enjoys a well-rounded social network consisting of Doran, her 39-year-old daughter and grandchildren, as well as a group of local and Internet friends.
But there is a darker subtext to Kennedy’s story. About twice a year, she has made trips to emergency rooms in the middle of the night for treatment of diabetes-induced unconsciousness. She experimented with advances in diabetic management technology to include an insulin pump, which did not end up working out for her. There were several devastating miscarriages before and after giving birth to her 12-pound baby by C-section.
It hasn’t been easy. But success at anything starts with good information, actively applied with discipline. Kennedy’s life is a testament to this. She checks her blood sugar 12 times a day, walks on her treadmill 90 minutes a day, and sticks to a 1,200- to 1,500-calorie diabetic diet. She has aligned herself with caregivers she can trust with her medical care and management.
But the most important thing she credits for her longevity is her support system.
In addition to her faith in God, Kennedy said that without the concern, education and support for her throughout her life by her family and friends, she probably would not be here today. From the beginning, her parents and healthcare providers stressed that she shouldn’t accept people into her social circle if they weren’t prepared and willing to understand critical symptoms and signs, learn how to respond in an emergency and be willing to act on her behalf.
To this day, Doran, whom she calls her “lifesaver,” wakes her at 3 a.m. every day to make sure she is not unconscious due to a drop in blood sugar called “dawn syndrome.” Other support in her life has come in the way of prayer support, a neighbor and best friend who is also diabetic, friends with diabetes she has met and shares with online, clinics and classes offered through Harrison Hospital, and a subscription to Diabetes Self Management magazine, which is full of many helpful tips and recipes.
Add it all up, and Kennedy is the poster child of Type 1 diabetes success and she deserves a medal for it.
The Joslin Diabetes Center is an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. It is on the front lines of the fight against the growing diabetes epidemic. It leads the battle through cutting-edge research and innovative approaches to clinical care and education.
Beginning in 1948, Dr. Joslin, who wanted to acknowledge the accomplishment of managing insulin-dependent diabetes over the long term, began awarding his patients certificates for living with diabetes for more than 25 years. Since 1970, the Joslin Diabetes Center has awarded a 50-Year Medal to more than 3,208 people worldwide. Kennedy is now a member of this distinguished group of survivors.
For more information about the Joslin Diabetes Center or its Diabetes Survivor Medal Program, visit www.joslin.org; call (617) 732-2412; or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.