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Len's worst times with diabetes didn't stop him swimming


Complications from type 2 diabetes left Len Bunn, 71, a shadow of his former self. But, after getting the help he needed, he’s back in the swim of things and is planning a fourth Swim22 challenge for us.

Growing up on the Kent coast in the 1940s and 1950s, Len was surrounded by seaside resorts and just miles from the English Channel, it’s easy to see why he developed a passion for swimming. 

A “plodder rather than a sprinter”, he regularly competed in local galas in his schooldays and for a time was trained by Sam Rockett, a famous local Channel swimmer. 

“I used to swim between the harbours at Dover, where the cross-Channel ferries now come in,” Len recalls. 


Len never lost his passion for the water. But, it was while living in South Africa, in his 40s, that Len noticed his health was starting to deteriorate. Usually fit, strong and healthy, he developed a dry mouth and started feeling woozy in the morning and late in the evenings. 

Late diagnosis

“Those symptoms didn’t mean anything to me at the time,” he says. “I went to see a doctor, who told me the cause was ‘probably’ type 2 diabetes.” But, despite this diagnosis, Len wasn’t prescribed any medication or given any advice on the importance of managing his condition. “I thought it was something I had to get on with,” he says.

It was only after moving back to the UK with his wife, Catherine, and their three sons and a daughter, in 1990, that Len started receiving treatment from the Paula Carr Centre in Ashford, Kent.

“I was put on a regime of three injections of insulin a day, as well as metformin tablets,” he says.

“They explained my diabetes wasn’t an illness, it was a condition, and I think that’s a very important distinction.”

But, although he was now getting the treatment he needed, Len started to experience sudden and dramatic weight gain, from 13 stone to around 28 stone.

Diabetic ulcers

“I think it was a side effect of my treatment, but I blew up like a balloon,” he says. “I was very lethargic, too, and I started developing what looked like blisters on my lower legs.” 

It took Len a while to realise that these sores were in fact diabetic ulcers

“At first, they were easy to ignore,” he says. “But, they gradually became very deep and painful.” Len now believes that his mother, who died when he was a young child after having both her legs amputated, had undiagnosed diabetes.

“I was around four years old when my mother developed ulcers all over her legs,” he says. “I remember the distinctive smell. I’ve had problems with leg ulcers too, and the smell is the same.”

Len has taken comfort from swimming

For several years, Len had to rely on a mobility scooter to get around due to his weight and leg ulcers. “But, I never stopped swimming,” he says. “It was something I got comfort from. And, when I was in the water, I wasn’t restricted by my weight or the pain in my joints.”

Gastric bypass

The turning point came when doctors at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital approved Len for a gastric bypass operation. After the surgery, Len’s diabetes symptoms improved to such an extent that he was briefly able to come off his medication.

“About a year after my gastric bypass, my weight stabilised at 16 stone and I was starting to feel the benefit of my operation when diabetes raised its ugly head again,” he says. “I started feeling tired and lethargic and although I didn’t want to admit it at first, I knew I had to get help.

“Now, I’m back on metformin and my condition is well controlled. I never want to go back to how I was 10 years ago.” 

Determined to get back to being active, eight months after his bypass, Len was finally able to get back in the water. To date, he has completed three of our Swim22 challenges and raised over £5,000.

Positive outlook

“No matter what life has thrown at me, I’ve always tried to stay positive, but it has been very tough at times,” he says. “Without the support of my family, I don’t think I’d have coped. I've always been able to talk to them and also talk to Diabetes UK. Knowing there's someone at the end of the phone to get advice from, helps you learn about the condition you live with."

“One thing that’s really changed over the years, is that I now have so many people to talk to. When I was first diagnosed in South Africa, people didn’t know enough about diabetes or talk about it enough. Now, thanks to the Paula Carr Centre, Diabetes UK and people I’ve met through work, I have lots of support.” 

Despite the effects of diabetic neuropathy (damage to the nerves) in his arms and hands, which restricts him to swimming on his back, Len is poised to complete another Swim22 challenge.

“I felt disabled by diabetes for a long time, but those times encourage me to keep pushing myself forward,” he says. “Diabetes affects people in different ways, but it’s vital you don’t ignore the signs as help is out there. I’ve had hard times, but I’ve never felt sorry for myself. My only option has been to pick myself up and get back in the water.”

Len features in our summer 2018 edition of Balance magazine - our membership magazine for people affected by diabetes. Our members help us make a real difference to the lives of people with diabetes. Join our members and get all the latest news, research and delicious recipes straight to your door.

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