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Pole position: Neil's epic journey with type 2

Neil looks to the camera wearing warm clothes

Neil Hunter

Diagnosed with type 2 in 2005

From an early-ish age, there are two subjects I’ve been a bit obsessed with. One is Everest and George Mallory, and the other one is Captain Scott at the south Pole. After rowing across the Atlantic, I decided I wanted to go to the south Pole.

Neil was medically discharged from the Royal Navy when he started taking insulin to treat his type 2 diabetes. While he thought about what he'd do next in his career, he wanted something to occupy his mind as well as his body, so he started training to row across the Atlantic. And once he'd achieved that, the world was his oyster.


My diagnosis came as a shock

I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2005, when I was 34. It was a bit of a bolt out of the blue. I was in the Royal Navy at the time and had to have a routine medical because I was changing my house insurance. I had no symptoms, so it was quite lucky really that I found out then.

There was a lot of ignorance on my part. I’d heard of type 2 diabetes, but I didn’t really know what it was. I know so much more about it now. At the time, I thought it was associated with obesity and bad diet and so on. That was a preconceived idea I had then, which I think follows through to what a lot of people think about the condition today.

I didn’t really think, ‘why me?’ I was told it was just one of those things.

Life with diabetes

My diabetes changed my career path

I resigned myself to the fact I was likely to get a medical discharge. It was mixed feelings. Looking back, I really missed the Navy. By co-incidence I’m now working as a police officer looking after police boats, so I’m in the same environment. Fate dealt me a good hand in the end.

I was quite surprised that diabetes wasn’t an issue when I applied to join the police. It was a case of declaring it, they asked if it was managed and there was probably a letter from my doctor, but that was it.


I was put on medication for the first year

It increased every time I went back for a review, which was quite regular at that time. When I was on the maximum amount of medication they could give me at that time and it wasn’t really making an impact, insulin was suggested as an option. At the time, my career in the Navy meant I wasn’t allowed to go to sea until my diabetes had stabilised, and I wasn’t able to go to sea if I was on insulin. But from a health point of view, it was a no-brainer.


Challenging myself

Around the time I was medically discharged from the Navy, me and a friend who I’d travelled to the Himalayas with, were talking about rowing across the Atlantic. The medical discharge allowed me to take a year out, buy the boat, do the training. There was no time to think, ‘oh woe is me,’ I just threw myself into the rowing project and thought I’d pick up the pieces when I come back.

They don’t come much bigger than the Atlantic trip. It took 67 days, and we raised around £30,000 for Diabetes UK. Looking back, I think, ‘crikey how did we do that?’ There were times when there was about 5,000 metres of water beneath us and we were several hundred miles away from land. And we were swimming. I don’t like going out of my depth at the coast when I’m on holiday!

Fortunately, my diabetes was absolutely perfect. It was such a routine. We rowed two hours on two hours off around the clock. The sleep deprivation was probably the biggest thing that we had to face. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with Dr Ian Gallen, who is Sir Steve Redgrave’s specialist. During the challenge, I uploaded my blood sugars from my monitor onto a laptop and sent them back via satellite phone and he wrote a medical paper about them.

From an early-ish age, there are two subjects I’ve been a bit obsessed with. One is Everest and George Mallory, and the other one is Captain Scott at the south Pole. They’re the heroic failure that the Brits like!

After rowing across the Atlantic, I was thinking about what I could do next and I decided I wanted to go to the south Pole. Me and my friend did some Arctic training in Norway, learning how to pull a sledge across the ice and deal with the extreme cold.  

About two years ago, I started thinking properly about going to the Pole. I started training and it went from there.



Managing my diabetes in extreme conditions

I was told that the cold might have an effect on my blood sugar, but I didn’t particularly notice that. When I was doing my Arctic training, I was using a blood glucose monitor and it was affected by the cold. Then you have to expose your hands to do the prick You could only do that in the tent as it’s too cold outside. So, the hardest thing was that I could only test in the morning and in the evening. In the meantime, I just had to rely on how I felt. I’m quite lucky in that my body will tell me when I’m going low. That, and stopping my insulin from too cold, was tricky.

Diabetes makes you more prone to having circulation problems, but I’m fortunate that I haven’t experienced that. I have had frost nip from exposure in the mountains. Only mild, but once you’ve had that you’re more susceptible to it again. So, you have to spend some time rewarming if your hands get too cold. It’s one of those things. You haven’t got a great deal of other things to do, other than skiing and sleep, so stopping to warm your hands up from time to time is no biggie, but you’ve got to do it. Otherwise the cold will have you.

When I went to the South Pole, I used a FreeStyle Libre. I wanted to know what my blood sugars were doing every hour or whenever I stopped for a break. As it happened, it was a fantastic piece of kit. Portsmouth University has a cold weather chamber which I got to use with all my kit on, using the monitor, and knew it was going to work.

Skiing to the South Pole

It’s quite a simple existence, as long as your clothing is appropriate, you have shelter, a means of transport, and your food. The sledge is over 2m long. It’s really light, but I probably had about 110kg in there, about 65kg of which was food. So, it’s quite simple, but those things are really, really important and you’ve got to make sure that you look after them all. You’re very careful that you’re not exposing skin for too long, if you have to. When you’re having your break, you take your mitts off because you need to be dexterous, if you need to adjust straps or your compass or anything like that, you’ve got to be really wary of how long you’re reducing insulation or exposing your skin.

Skiing to the Pole is generally flat, but the wind carves the ice in such a way that it creates waves and ridges. You just can’t see them. You ski into them, you fall over them. It’s like running down the street with your eyes closed and hoping you don’t hit anything. You’re constantly stopping and starting. Once you get through all of that, the last 100 miles to the Pole are relatively straightforward. But the conditions change. The snow is like sand – it’s very gritty. Someone said to me before I went, ‘it doesn’t get any easier, it just gets different.’

And they were right! But there were so many times where there was absolutely no wind, it’s 24-hour daylight, the sun was shining, beautiful blue skies. It’s perfect white, and you look around you and you know that there’s nobody around for miles.

With a couple of days to go, I was running low on food. On my last day I had two cereal bars and I had 10 nautical miles to ski. It could have been tricky from a diabetes point of view. I took an amount of food and was hoping to eke it out. But I’d pulled up short the day before because I was shattered and it was freezing. So, I didn’t take any insulin at all from that point. I kept my blood sugars slightly elevated, on purpose, so I knew I was ok from that respect.

Getting to the Pole was nice, but it was the end of the adventure. I knew it meant I was back to normal life.

Life with diabetes

How I manage my diabetes today

I’m very wary of preaching and saying, ‘I’m diabetic and I can do this.’ Because I know not everybody can. I’m very fortunate that with my condition, the way it works, it works for me.

For me, I try not to complicate it. I exercise, I eat healthily. Since I’ve been using the sensor my HbA1c has come right down. I’m more than happy about where I’m at with my diabetes.

I have had the odd message from people with diabetes after I’d rowed the Atlantic and come back from the Pole, saying it had really spurred them on. If I’ve made a difference to one or two people that’s great.

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