ONE HOT SUMMER
Straight-talking co-founder of WORLD fashion brand Denise L’Estrange-Corbet is an Ambassador for Diabetes Auckland. Here she shares a personal diabetes story – recalling the day her teenage daughter Pebbles was diagnosed with T1.
My first job straight out of school, 40 years ago, was working for an international company at their London head office. Soon after I joined, another girl started, Karen, who had seriously flicked back Farrah Fawcett-type hair wings, and a much older boyfriend. She also told us she had type 1 diabetes.
This didn’t mean that much to me, except that when she took out this huge syringe and needle to inject herself I would cringe.
I was 17, and never thought for a minute that diabetes would ever affect me, but it reared its head in the summer of 2008, when my 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with it.
It was a very hot summer, and Pebbles was drinking a lot of water, which I did not find unusual considering the heat.
She told me she thought she had type 1 diabetes. I let out a sort of huff, that meant ‘Don’t be ridiculous’.
She went to the doctor for a test, as she is of the computer generation, the ones that look symptoms up online, as opposed to going through books in the library.
Results came back: no diabetes. But the thirst continued, and the appetite increased to biblical proportions. Back to the doctor, tests taken, results back, no diabetes.
Her weight started plummeting. She came into the lounge one evening where her father and I were watching TV. She wore a tank top and jeans, which she was holding up at the waist to stop them from falling down.
I gasped – I did not realise how emaciated she had become.
Friends asked if she was anorexic or bulimic. I said most definitely not, as she was eating us out of house and home quite literally, but what teenagers don’t?
I knew she wasn’t bulimic, as I would go into the bathroom after her to see if I could smell anything. I told friends she thought she had diabetes, but the tests proved negative. Her blood sugar was between 8 and 9, which was average.
We drove to Wellington for a weekend with a friend of hers, and stopped at a gas station to get fuel. She bought another 1.5L bottle of water, and before we had left the gas station, she had drunk it all. As I pulled out, she asked if we could go back for more water, I said ‘no, you have just drunk a whole bottle’, and thought she was just playing up in front of her friend.
We had a row, she got out of the car when I stopped in traffic and said she would walk. I put this down to petulant teenage behaviour.
Back to Auckland, back to the doctor. This time he called me at work. Her blood sugar was 38 – she was in an ambulance on her way to Auckland Hospital.
When I arrived, she cried and said, ‘I told you I had diabetes’.
She did. But, when the doctors tell you that she didn’t, what was I to think? She has never forgiven me for this, for not believing her.
Pebbles has been in and out of hospital since then. In the intensive care unit so many times, touch and go, when she has gone into a diabetic coma from not taking her insulin, from being like all teenagers think they are: invincible.
When I would ask her if she had taken her insulin, the response would be ‘What do you care?’ It has been hard, so bloody hard. I take full responsibility for not believing her, and it has cost a lot in terms of our relationship.
Nine years on, it is no easier. She resents the fact she has it, ‘Why me?’ I don’t know, I can’t answer that. I would swap with her in a heartbeat if I could.
I often blame myself. Did I do something wrong? She was brought up in a healthy home, with no fizzy drinks, fast food or junk, so why her? There is no reason – it’s not caused by a bad diet, it’s an autoimmune disorder.
Life sometimes just deals you a cruel blow, and they do not come much crueller than diabetes type 1.
Unlike so many other illnesses today, diabetes has no cure. Everything else seems to have a cure, so why not this? You can get a new heart, liver, kidneys, but not a pancreas, which is the size of your fingernail.
I hope, with all my heart, that one day there will be. To put an end to the relentless five-times-a day injections into the stomach, until the skin scars and it is too hard, and you have to find another spot.
We have to educate the public about type 1 diabetes. So many people have said to me how surprised they are that she has it, as she is so slim, and I have to explain it is quite different from type 2 diabetes.
When will some genius medic come up with a tablet to replace the archaic needle in the interim of a cure?
Please hope it is sooner than another 40 years.
WOMAN OF INFLUENCE
Denise L’Estrange-Corbet is co-founder of WORLD, one of New Zealand’s best known fashion brands which has shown on the catwalks of London, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Sydney and New Zealand. Outspoken, and often sought for her opinion from fashion to politics and everything in between, Denise was awarded the Westpac 2017 Women of Influence Award for arts and culture in September. She was the first female fashion designer to receive a New Zealand Order of Merit (formerly an MBE) in 2002 and is also a published author. Denise is an Ambassador for Diabetes Auckland and also supports a number of other charities, including IHC, the Mental Health Foundation, The Starship Foundation and The Leukaemia and Blood Cancer Foundation. Denise’s Grocery Ball prize – high tea for 10 at the Langham Hotel – raised more than $11,000 for Diabetes NZ, and her speech at the event earlier this year brought many in the audience to tears.
A version of this article first appeared in the Summer issue of Diabetes WELLNESS magazine. Join Diabetes NZ today to receive your copy