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Beating the Odds Together: Living with Type 1 Diabetes

How a Sussex man and his wife plan to celebrate his 60-year diabetes diagnoses

When Tony Dunn received his 50-year living with diabetes medal from Boston's Joslin Diabetes Centre he was already living well past his life expectancy.

Just after his high school graduation, in 1960, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and his doctor told him he likely wouldn't live past 40 or 50 years of age.

That was 10 years ago.

Now 78 and living life to the fullest, Tony and his wife of 57 years, Phyllis, can look back at not only living with the disease, but thriving despite of it.

Beating the Odds Horizon Story Photo 2 2020

This is thanks to the couple's diligence in Tony's health care habits, and the education and support of several Horizon facilities.

FACING AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

November was Diabetes Awareness Month, and diabetes is one of the most common conditions affecting Canadians, with an estimated two million people living with the disease.

Type 1 diabetes, a non-preventable autoimmune condition in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, affects over 300,000 Canadian children, adolescents, and adults and can lead to a variety of complications including stroke, nerve damage, kidney damage, eye damage and heart disease.

"I was diagnosed when I was 17, and I wondered what was ahead for me because I had two cousins with Type 1 diabetes and they were in bad shape," said Tony. "I remember being shown how to administer my NPH (Neutral Protamine Hagedorn) insulin using a glass syringe with a steel needle and was told to stay away from sweets, eat three meals a day and a lunch at bedtime and that my life expectancy would probably be in the 40 to 50 range and that was it."

The youngest of 16 children, Tony grew up on a farm in Wards Creek, New Brunswick, just outside of Sussex. In 1963 Tony met Phyllis, a soon-to-be graduate of Horizon's The Moncton Hospital School of Nursing and they were married later that year.

"Tony's treatment was very basic when we first met, but I always gave him any information I could find and made sure we maintained a healthy diet," said Phyllis. "He managed quite well, and we tried to keep his sugars in range."

Fortunately for the Dunns, there have been considerable changes in specific tools and education over the past 50 years. The 1970s and 80s introduced innovative blood glucose readers, strips to measure blood glucose (sugar) levels, the insulin pump, and health care professionals learned more about the complexity of the disease and which treatments worked best.

"I still remember bringing home the first home glucometer in 1980," said Phyllis, excitedly. "That was a real game-changer and Tony was very good about using it."

Tony and Phyllis settled in Ontario before moving back home to New Brunswick in 1975, where Tony built a house on the land where he grew up and raised their four children - David Jr., Dennis, Jason and Alaina.

In 1977 Tony started work as a heavy equipment operator for PCA Potash and remained there until his retirement in 2002.

"He never missed a day of work," said Phyllis, proudly. "He played hockey and did everything he wanted to do because he was compliant with the treatment and wanted to stay healthy."

SUPPORTING HER HUSBAND

Phyllis never misses an opportunity to praise Tony's diligence when it comes to managing his diabetes, and her enthusiasm for creating awareness of her husband's success underscores the deep love and care she's provided to him for almost six decades.

"I gave Tony the information about how to best manage his diabetes and he listened, and I think that's what has kept him well for so long," she said.

"I had two cousins who were diagnosed around the same time as me, but they didn't do what they were supposed to do, and they unfortunately passed away in their 40s," added Tony.

Phyllis relied on her training as a nurse and eventually realized a life-long goal of earning a degree, receiving her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Moncton in 1992. At the time of her retirement in 2000, Phyllis was managing the diabetic clinic at Horizon's Sussex Health Centre where she was instrumental in the clinic's start-up and success.

"When I started I only had a few clients, but after three years I needed an assistant," she said.

A ROUGH PATCH

Despite the work Tony puts in day after day, he's still faced challenges associated with his diabetes.

He had femoral by-pass surgery in 2015 due to circulation issues in his left leg and in 2018 he had six cardiac by-pass procedures and an aortic valve replacement at Horizon's New Brunswick Heart Centre (NBHC), a provincial program administered by Horizon and located in Saint John.

"I had chest pain and was treated for congestive heart failure," he said. "I spent 38 days in the unit after my surgery and was given a strict regimen to follow."

But, according to Phyllis, he took it all in stride and even surprised his doctor with his keen knowledge of what to do and when.

"He talked to his doctor for about an hour and (his physician) knew Tony was all set and knew what he was doing with the pump and that he had never seen anyone who could run a pump like him."

"It took me a while to recover but I did everything I was supposed to do, and it turned out ok," added Tony.  

"I can't say enough good things about the heart centre," added Phyllis. "The care Tony received was absolutely second to none."

EYES ON THE PRIZE: THE 60-YEAR CERTIFICATE

Almost three years later Tony is still "doing what he's supposed to be doing," which includes a check-up every six weeks at the NBHC to monitor his health while staying healthy and active by eating right, getting enough rest, working on his tractor, spending time with his 13 grandkids, and meeting up with friends, even it's just for a cup of coffee.

"I'm feeling pretty great for 78," said Tony. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't have something to do."

Next on the Dunns' to-do list is "going after the 60-year living with diabetes certificate" from the Joslin Centre.

"We were very impressed with what we saw at the centre in 2010," said Phyllis. "There were only five others at the event from Canada and we were the only Maritimers so it was really special."

The Joslin Diabetes Centre is the world's largest diabetes research centre, diabetes clinic, and provider of education. The Medalist Program began in 1948 by awarding medals to people who had been living with diabetes for 25 years. As more and more people began living longer, the centre expanded the program to include the 50-year bronze medal. Believing that proper self-management was the key to minimizing long-term complications, the program was the vision of Joslin's founder, Dr. Elliott P. Joslin, and has served as an incentive for those committed to good, although challenging, diabetes care.

This vision truly resonated with the Dunns and mirrored their own approach to managing Tony's diabetes over the years with support from the Diabetes Education Centre at Horizon's Saint John Regional Hospital (SJRH).

Horizon's Diabetes Education Centres help support people living with diabetes and prediabetes by helping to set goals to improve wellness. The nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, and other health care providers can help manage an individual's diabetes through support and education via group classes and individual appointments.

"For many years, the Diabetes Education Center has been one of the key players in Tony's success through the provision of self-management support," said Karla Price, a registered nurse and manager of diabetes education for ambulatory treatment clinics at Horizon's SHRH and St. Joseph's Hospital.  

"Knowing that the relentless, daily tasks that contribute to living successfully with diabetes are the responsibility of the patient, our highly specialized team consisting of endocrinologists, nurses, and dietitians have all played a role in keeping Tony and his wife up to date with innovative tools and treatments and have been there for him through the good days as well as the rough patches."

"I've lived with diabetes for 60 years and it's 24/7, 365 days a year of making sure I eat the right food, get enough rest and exercise, and making sure the insulin pump gives me the right amount of insulin," said Tony.

"Our marriage has revolved around blood sugar levels," Phyllis added, with a laugh.

It's with this resolve, the loving support of his wife and their collective humour that Tony has beaten the odds and outlived the disheartening prognosis given to him all those years ago.

"I'm proof that you can still live a great life," he said, "it's when you give up that it gets harder."

 

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