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Being a medical student with type 1, during Covid-19: George’s story

George West walking near cliffs

George West

George West was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes four years ago

I won’t be letting diabetes hold me back. It doesn’t define me, and I want others to know there is nothing you can’t do when you have diabetes.

George is a medical student who has been living with type 1 diabetes since his diagnosis four years ago. He shares the challenges of his diagnosis, how he’s raising awareness of diabetes, and discusses life as a student doctor during the pandemic. He's recently had his first coronavirus vaccine and is keen to encourage others to have theirs too.

Diagnosis

Getting diagnosed with type 1 diabetes

Being a medical student, I obviously knew what diabetes was and what the signs and symptoms were. However, I had no idea what it was like to live with a chronic condition - that was until I was diagnosed with a chronic condition myself.

It was four years ago, during my first year at medical school, that I started to lose weight. In fact, I lost a lot of weight, dropping from about 100 kilos to 70. At the time, I was studying hard for exams and my focus was just on passing them. But it got to the point where I couldn’t go an hour without needing the toilet and I was drinking around six or seven litres of water a day - the thirst really was unbelievable. At the same time, I kept developing thrush and was generally exhausted. In the end, I visited my GP who diagnosed me as having type 1 diabetes and sent me to the hospital.

A photo of our case study, George West, at work in hospital

Life with diabetes

Adapting to life with diabetes

I think the challenges actually increased after I was diagnosed. As a typical bloke I bottled things up and thought I could deal with it. I told myself it was just a case of injecting insulin and I would get used to it. At the same time, I was using textbooks to teach myself how to manage the condition and how to count carbohydrates

My medical school advised me to take a year out, learn about my condition, and then return the following year. My response to this was “absolutely, no way.” I had six weeks off over the summer and I was determined to return in September and continue my training. 

However, returning for my second year wasn’t easy. I moved out of university halls and in with friends, who I don’t think fully understood my diabetes. I couldn’t go out drinking as much with my rugby team, I couldn’t do physical sport because I hadn’t learnt to control my sugars, and the sweets I would leave dotted about for hypos would be eaten by my housemates, who didn’t really know why they were there. I was also struggling with injecting in public. 

I remember going to a rugby pre-season session and everyone looking at me as if I had changed and that I wouldn’t be able to join in anymore. But I hadn’t changed, I just had a new condition that I was living with. Things were starting to feel too much. I had an appointment a few weeks later with my diabetes team and I think that’s when it actually hit me: everything isn’t ok. That was the turning point. 

Volunteering

Getting involved with Diabetes UK

I decided I wanted to try and raise some money for Diabetes UK, so signed up for a 10k in Sheffield. I received my fundraising pack containing my t-shirt and banner, which also included a leaflet about the charity. The leaflet made me realise that I had never really looked into any resources, even though I was probably in need of some help. From there, I discovered Diabetes UK’s Learning Zone and their Helpline, which my parents actually called when they were struggling to understand my diagnosis.

I found Diabetes UK’s website really helpful, and still do. You can find anything on there that you need to know, which is what’s so great about it. It’s also been helpful to have a reputable source of information during the pandemic and I’ve found the social media pages particularly helpful for updates.

Being based in Sheffield for my studies, I have close links with the North of England team who send me lots of information and invites to Zoom meet ups. I started volunteering with Diabetes UK in Barnsley, as part of a community project for my studies, which involved raising awareness of type 2. Gradually I began doing talks, helping on the kids’ camps, and working with the local diabetes teams. I found that once I looked for help, I started giving back to Diabetes UK. I owe them a lot; without their help I wouldn’t be in the position I am now.

Feeling inspired to continue raising awareness, I’ve now started an Instagram account called @LearnDiabetes, with a few other NHS doctors. One thing that had really struck me when I was first diagnosed was the stigma and misconceptions that surround all types of diabetes. My hope is that we can dispel certain myths and educate people about all things diabetes.

Journey with diabetes

Navigating the pandemic

At the start of the Covid-19 outbreak I was in Australia completing one of my medical placements, which meant I needed to come home early. During the first lockdown, I decided to shield and didn’t leave the house. If I’m being honest, I did feel nervous about the implications of catching Covid given that I have diabetes. I wanted to keep myself safe and so initially did all my studies online, however in July we had to return to the hospitals as part of our clinical placements. As I’m now in my final year of medical school, I’m also working one day a week as a Student Doctor Assistant. 

Getting the coronavirus vaccine

I was still feeling apprehensive about returning to hospital life, but the coronavirus news coming out from Diabetes UK made me feel a lot more confident, and I wanted to get out and help on the wards at such a challenging time for the NHS. This obviously means taking all precautions and wearing full PPE, and because of my work in the hospitals I’ve now received my first dose of of the Covid vaccine with my second dose due in March. I know some people have been sceptical about receiving the vaccine, but for me there was actually an element of excitement. It feels like we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can safely say that I had no side effects and my blood sugars didn’t react badly at all. I really would urge everyone to get the vaccine when it’s offered to them.

Looking ahead

I now use a CGM, which has really changed the way I manage my diabetes. This clever bit of kit has helped so much in terms of my medical training, as I don’t need to constantly worry about going high or low when I’m on placement. However, I think using a normal blood glucose machine when I was first diagnosed, was hugely beneficial. I had to learn how to finger prick, how my body feels at certain levels, and get to grips with the numbers. 

It’s fair to say the past 12 months have been nothing short of madness. I’m going to be graduating this year, which I never thought would be happening in the middle of a pandemic. My plan is to do two years as a junior doctor and then apply for a surgical training programme. I think my ultimate goal is to pursue a career as an orthopaedic surgeon. 

In the past people have said things to me like, “Diabetes may affect you being a surgeon” or “Maybe you should choose a career better suited to your diabetes.” However, I won’t be letting diabetes hold me back. It doesn’t define me, and I want others to know there is nothing you can’t do when you have diabetes.
 

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