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Shannon's story: running a marathon with type 1 diabetes

Shannon with her daughter on her shoulders, laughing in the countryside

Shannon

Diagnosed with type 1 while 28 weeks pregnant with daughter Bronwen

Diabetes was a shock for me. I kept thinking, ‘how am I going to do this now? How am I going to do that?’ Eventually, instead of asking, ‘how?’ I started thinking, ‘I just will.’

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during her pregnancy, police custody sergeant Shannon had a lot to come to terms with as she learnt to manage her condition with a newborn and figure out what it would like to go back to her busy job with type 1. 

Shannon, Balance cover star and Diabetes UK member, tells us all about how her diagnosis didn't stop her from raising £5000 for Diabetes UK when she ran the London marathon. 

Life with diabetes

Diagnosis

After me and my husband, Dan, got married in May 2015, we decided that we wanted to try for a baby. I assumed it would happen quite quickly, but it didn’t. After about a year, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. That was my first autoimmune condition. 

Once that was under control, I fell pregnant within 18 months. At all my routine pregnancy check-ups, my sugars were high. It was mentioned – I’d be asked if I’d just had a sugary drink - but no one ever did anything about it. 

Then, at nine weeks, I became really sick with hyperemesis gravidarium (severe morning sickness). It was awful. I was bed-bound and I certainly couldn’t go to work. I was hospitalised several times. In the end, I had to go to a special clinic three times a week for intravenous fluids and an anti-sickness injection. 

Just as my sickness was calming down, at about 22 weeks, I mentioned my high sugars to a friend who is a midwife. She said that wasn’t normal, contacted some people she worked with, and later that day I was in hospital. 

There, they said there was a high chance that I had a type of diabetes, but they didn’t know which one. They hoped it was gestational, but I didn’t fit any of the criteria. 

I knew nothing at all about diabetes. I knew that some people with diabetes had to inject, and that others didn’t. That was the extent of my knowledge. 

After further tests, I found out when I was around 28 weeks pregnant that I had type 1 diabetes. There was almost an assumption that I knew what it was. It was a really hard time. I had to educate myself while I was feeling terrible. You’ve got all these things to think about and learn. It’s a life-changing condition. The anxiety I had about managing diabetes with my job and a baby and a husband who often works away, was huge.

Journey with diabetes

Giving birth with diabetes

I was told that because I had type 1, I would be induced no later than 38 weeks because of concerns that the baby might grow too big

Two days before my induction date, my sugars kept dropping. I was needing no insulin. I called the consultant and he told me to come into hospital to be monitored, as it’s a sign that the placenta is starting to detach. When they examined me they found out I was already in early labour.

The next day, I was induced. I’d heard all these horror stories about induction taking days, but I had the pessary and within ten minutes I was in full-blown labour.

I’m fine with injections, but cannulas have always been an issue for me. I didn’t want to be managed using a cannula, so me and Dan monitored my sugars throughout the birth. I was only in labour for six hours, and out she came. Bronwen was 7lbs 1oz and she was perfect.

Those first hours after birth are crazy. I was given some toast, but Dan was starving so he ordered a pepperoni pizza to the delivery room. My sugars just went wild after labour. I didn’t understand at that point that if my sugars were high I could take insulin and have food. So if my sugars were high, I just wouldn’t eat. It’s ridiculous looking back, I was sitting there after labour, starving, and watching Dan eat pizza! 

After coming out of hospital, I ended up this little bubble where I was just looking after me and Bronwen. I had such a shocking pregnancy, but the birth and afterwards were so good. 

When Bronwen was small, I missed every appointment or deadline or timeframe that I ever needed to keep. You need to be 5mmol/mol to drive, and half the time I’d get ready, test my blood sugar and realise I couldn’t drive. I’d get my sugars up and then Bronwen would need her nappy changed. I’d think, ‘I’m never going to get out of this house!’ On some days it would really get me down. I’d think life was always going to be this hard. To a degree, life is harder now. I have to be more organised, which doesn’t suit me that much. I like to be quite spontaneous, but you’ve just got to accept it.

Emotions

Managing with a baby

When my daughter Bronwen was about eight months old, I saw a clinical psychologist. I was advised to do that because of the trauma that could be caused by everything I had experienced. Quite often people with severe morning sickness can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’s the same with a chronic condition like type 1 diabetes.

I’m grateful that help was available, but I found it so hard getting to the hospital appointment with a small baby while trying to manage my sugars. Having to be anywhere for a certain time was just awful. It didn’t really help me at that time.

I had diabetes nurses on call, which I still have now. Luckily I did manage my diabetes quite well. There is support out there if you want it or need it. For me, it was a case of just getting on with it.

At my health trust, if you have a chronic condition, you can self-refer for emotional or mental health help. You just call them up and you’ll get an appointment. I feel like I’m too busy at the moment, but it’s great to know it’s there if I want to take it. Before, you had to wait to see your consultant for a referral. When that’s the case, I think it can be a barrier to seeking help, because it’s often very much a case of how you feel on the day you see your consultant. If you think you’re not too bad, you won’t ask for help. 

I think self-referral is really good, but I think there’s a gap for mental wellbeing, because not everyone who has concerns that would affect them mentally would need a clinical psychologist. You might just need a counsellor or a peer to talk to. 

Activity

Deciding to run a mararthon

Diabetes was a shock for me. I kept thinking, ‘how am I doing to do this now? How am I going to do that?’ 

Eventually, instead of asking, ‘how?’ I started thinking, ‘I just will.’ It was my way of sticking two fingers up at the condition. 

I’ve always wanted to run the London marathon, and as Diabetes UK is the country’s top diabetes charity, so it was a no-brainer that I’d run for them. It was one of those hare-brained ideas, I guess. I had a lot of time on my own with a newborn to reflect and think, ‘what do I want to achieve?’

My daughter was eight months old when I started training. When I applied for my marathon place, I told Diabetes UK that I needed the support of Dan. I couldn’t do it on my own. They were really good and gave us both a place. 

I did loads of research about diabetes and running, but I couldn’t run a mile on the first training day. My sugars plummeted within minutes

It was at that point I started to self-fund the FreeStyle Libre, which is now on prescription for people with type 1 diabetes, because I kept having to stop to prick my fingers. Trying to get going again, especially on a long run, was just unbearable. I was breastfeeding as well. That affects your sugars anyway, never mind running ten hours in between.

For the longer runs, Dan was always with me. The shorter ones I could manage quite happily on my own. I’d always tell people my route, so they could get me on the phone. My blood sugar control when I was training for the marathon was probably the best it had ever been, I think because I was so fit and healthy. My nutrition was really good, I was checking my blood sugars so much. It was definitely a ‘me’ time. 

On the morning of the marathon, I thought, ‘what have I done?’ I think 15 miles was my longest training run. I thought, ‘how am I going to get past that limit?’ I’m really strong minded. I thought, if I have to walk, so be it. 

Fundraising

Running the marathon

Diabetes UK offer their runners so much help leading up to the marathon. We had access to nutritional information and dietitians to help us. We had training days where we could go to their headquarters in London and have personal trainers help with our training. 

There were also Facebook groups specifically for Diabetes UK runners and fundraisers and the community spirit on there was incredible. We all shared our Strava data, which helped keep me motivated because the feeling of competition would encourage me to go out and train. 

All those things combined were really great. You really felt part of a team, even though running the marathon is a solo thing. And seeing everyone in their Diabetes UK tops on the day was great. If we saw someone in a Diabetes UK top, we’d yell encouragement and others would do the same for us. It was really great. 

We were the top fundraisers that year. You aim to raise £1800 each, and we raised just over £5,000 in total. 

Life with diabetes

Becoming a custody sergeant

My dad was a sergeant in the police and my mum joined when I was in my teenage years. I’ve got two younger brothers and they are both police officers now as well. It must be genetic or contagious!

I grew up knowing about the police and when I had jobs in my teens and early twenties, I just got so bored so quickly. I needed something a bit different. I saw a degree in policing and went for it.

I worked my way up to become a police response officer. It can be very high adrenaline. The job that you expect to be routine could turn out to be completely manic. You never know what you’re going to get. 

After I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I had to start having medical reviews. That was something I’d never had to think about before, because I was so healthy. My health was definitely something I took for granted.

I was really lucky as I had a great sergeant when I was diagnosed. He was really supportive. To go into work and say, ‘I’ve got type 1 diabetes,’ did feel daunting. But that sergeant just made the whole experience so much easier. He was great, but the people I worked with didn’t always understand. They’d ask me to do something and my blood sugars wouldn’t be good. I felt a lot of pressure to try to hide my symptoms, because I didn’t want to be seen as a burden. 

When I went back to work after maternity leave, I went straight back into my normal position as a response officer. I had all the tickets. I could drive with blue lights. I could respond to 999 calls. I had training in using a ‘stinger’ [tyre deflation device]. I was trained to do almost everything on response. 

But when I went back, they said everything needed to be reviewed because of my diabetes. I had to do a number of assessments before I could drive or do any of my job. I understood it had to be done, but it did make me feel ostracised. Going from someone who is highly trained, to going on maternity leave and returning unable to use that training felt really off for me. It made me feel like I wasn’t a real part of the team. 

That sort of drove me to go for promotion. I needed to do something else. I applied to do my sergeant’s exam and did it within four months of going back to work. Now, I’m a police custody sergeant. I worked from home during lockdown, but have recently returned to work, where my employers have put in a raft of measures to keep me safe from coronavirus.

Now, I think of my life as ‘pre-diabetes’ and ‘post-diabetes’. They say that’s going to happen with the coronavirus, too!

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