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Volunteers' Week 2023 - Sandra's story

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Sandra has lived with type 1 diabetes for almost 62 years. She's been volunteering with us since the 1970s.

Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes

Sandra was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes almost 62 years ago. Her mother recognised the symptoms of diabetes - thirst, fatigue, going to the toilet a lot, and weight loss – because Sandra’s grandmother and aunt already had type 1. They went to see their GP, who sent Sandra straight to hospital. 

When she arrived at the hospital, Sandra was given a cup of tea without sugar “because I was told I could never have sugar again, so I might as well start with the tea!”. That was the first shock she had; the second one came when a nurse gave her a “fearsome looking syringe with a long metal needle” and told her she “might as well do the first injection as I’d be doing them for the rest of my life.”

The biggest change to Sandra’s life, after she was diagnosed, was how rigid her life became around the timings of injections, urine tests, and food at set times; diabetes management was very different then to how it is now. As she was 13 at the time, Sandra was still at school. Luckily, the school staff and the other students were very supportive, even though there were no systems in place for students with type 1 that there are now. She did, however, find it embarrassing when she had to eat a snack at set times, as she was the only student allowed to eat outside of lunch time. And – much to her sisters’ relief! – Sandra had to give up her early morning violin lessons because fitting in urine tests, meals, and injections made getting to school on time difficult. 

Starting out as a volunteer

Sandra joined Diabetes UK – or the British Diabetic Association, as it was known then – in January 1962, and has been a member ever since. She says she’s learnt so much from the charity since then, so she decided to start volunteering to give something back in return for all the support she’s received from us, and to support other people living with diabetes. Her first volunteering role back in the early 1970s was supporting the summer camps for children and young people with type 1. 

For the past 12 years, Sandra has volunteered with the Bristol Diabetes Support Network. This started as one local support group, and grew to four separate groups across the city – three for people with all types of diabetes, and one specifically for those with type 1, as their needs are often different especially with the growing use of technology. Sandra helped the Chairperson of the groups organise the meetings, and feels they “established good working relationships with local healthcare professionals so can call on experts for talks about diabetes.” 

With the Covid-19 pandemic, the groups had to stop their face-to-face meetings, but the type 1 group began meeting online. Attendance at this group actually increased during this time “as busy people were happy to meet online rather than travel to a face-to-face meeting.” The type 1 group now mix both face-to-face and online meetings throughout the year. Sandra says she often gets requests from people with diabetes who want to meet others living with the condition, but she recognises that people find it difficult to commit the time for volunteering. So she’s started looking at different options such as coffee mornings, that are quicker and easier to arrange. 

Sharing information to help others

Sandra is also a Speaker Volunteer and an Events Volunteer. For these roles, she delivers talks about diabetes to healthcare professionals and organisations who want to know more, and she attends health fairs to share information with members of the public. And she’s a member of her local Diabetes Integrated Care Board, helping to influence decisions about diabetes care. 

"I know I've had an impact when people tell me how much their confidence has improved." 

Sandra says her favourite thing about volunteering is working with the people who attend the support groups, and increasing her own personal knowledge of diabetes. She knows she’s had an impact when people who've attended the groups tell her how much their confidence in managing their diabetes has improved from “meeting others with diabetes for the first time and realising they can do anything they want despite the diabetes.” 

Sandra says Diabetes UK is very supportive of volunteers, and staff members are always available to help by phone or email. Her message to anyone considering volunteering with us is “go for it however small the amount of time you have. You make friends, have a glow of satisfaction if you help someone, and learn much about diabetes. I have increased my social network because of my volunteering.” 

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