Marc H. Blatstein

Winning with Diabetes

Having lived with Type 1 diabetes for the past 36 years, and having accepted it as my lifetime partner, I have dedicated my life to win the battle against diabetes! I have contributed proceeds from my business, volunteered my time to help find a cure for research, plus, I have counseled and demonstrated to hundreds of people -- at all stages of life -- how to manage a winning lifestyle with diabetes.

The Loss of Innocence

I can still remember the day I was diagnosed with diabetes in September of 1961. My parents sat me down at the kitchen table and cried as they told me that I had diabetes. It was the day I lost my innocence. I felt as if I had upset them for the rest of their lives.

My overwhelming thought at the time was what am I going to lose? Would I never be able to eat dessert again? Could I still play sports? Would I lose my eyesight? What's going to happen to me? I probably would feel the very same way if I were diagnosed today. However, looking back on the progress and breakthroughs that have been made from the early sixties until now is like comparing living in the Wild, Wild West to living in the new millennium.

In the past when you were diagnosed, you were immediately admitted to the hospital, as I was. So the next several weeks were spent at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to bring my diabetes "under control." My attending physician, Dr. Robert Kay, an endocrinologist, set the tone for the "living and winning" with diabetes for the rest of my life. He told me to "smile, laugh and have fun." It wasn't until I became an adult that I began to appreciate his message.

Fighting Every Step of the Way

As a pre-teen and teenager with diabetes, I couldn't have been a worse patient. (I would have been a handful even without the disease!) I dreaded going to school, carrying my snacks, and giving myself my daily insulin injections. I was the only kid in school who had to live this way and it was awkward and embarrassing. In my mind, I was an oddity and I hated it.

I challenged diabetes every step of the way. I challenged my parents, my doctors, and anyone who stood in my way. My parents practically begged me to go to diabetes summer camp and I refused. In hindsight, it probably would have been a great thing for me to do. However, I was going to show them who was boss. I would let my blood sugar drop dramatically until I practically passed out. My parents didn't understand, I didn't understand, and I had no one to talk to.

At least now, when a person is diagnosed with the disease, there is plenty of education and support available at their fingertips. In addition to physicians, there are specialists available to help you deal with the psycho-social issues that totally overwhelmed me. Today, there is a team approach to being diagnosed; you can speak to a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE), dietitian, and a psycho-social counselor. I believe it would have been a lot less traumatic for me had I received access to these support groups. As a result of my own experience of feeling like I was the only kid in the world with diabetes, I now devote several hours a week talking to people throughout the country who are recently diagnosed. My message is always the same, "I've been there. I know how you are feeling. You can beat it. Be a winner!"

The Can Do's vs. the Can't Do's of Diabetes

When I wanted to join a basketball team, my mother questioned my decision. I also remember my father's friends asking if I'd be "okay." I knew I'd be okay, but I had to convince everyone else! I made the team, but I had to continually urge the coach to let me get some court time. When I was on the court, the coach would pray I didn't get low blood sugar and pass out. However, I did pass out. Twice! But again, that didn't stop me.

Before each game I would get psyched by repeating the words, "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it." I became my own cheering section and it worked. I also pushed myself beyond the limit and believe me, I paid the price.

At 16, I went out for the junior varsity football and track teams. I was 6 feet tall and 210 pounds. After many bruises and abrasions, I decided to forget football and I would get serious about track -- and again, my mother and coach questioned my decision. Before I started practicing for the team, my mother called Dr. Kay to get his opinion. He said, "Marc's a normal 16-year old boy who needs to take a few extra steps to keep himself healthy. He needs to feel like the rest of the guys. He can do it." Yes!

Meeting with the disaster of waking up in the nurse's office after my first track meet, again I said, "Oh well -- I still can do it." I could have quit that day but I didn't. And luckily, I wasn't asked to leave the team; thanks to the coach.

Learning to Believe in Myself

While I'd like you to believe that I have always possessed this positive attitude, I have to be honest and admit that there were many times I felt like giving up because I had diabetes. I used it more as a crutch in my later teens and my "I can do it" attitude mentally wavered. It came to a head in the summer of 1969 when my best friend Barry and I enrolled in summer courses at a college in Artesia, New Mexico.

We signed up for all the normal courses offered and thought we would try a non-traditional course called "Man and His Elements." Little did we know that the instructor for this course was a former Marine sergeant. Still I said, I can do it."

I got more than I bargained for. This eight-week course was designed to strengthen us emotionally and physically for the ultimate challenge -- a three day survival course in the mountains of New Mexico, with only c-rations, a tent and a knife. "I can handle it -- I think."

Our daily training included a five-mile run at dawn, and multiple series of circuit weight training, push-ups, sit-ups, ropes, etc. This instructor wasn't just a Marine, he was an absolute dictator! Of the 12 participants, eight guys and four gals, I was the only one with diabetes. The training went slowly. Many times I told our fearless leader/dictator I couldn't continue because I had diabetes. Each time he told me, "I'm not going to let you quit because you have a disease. Maybe you'll never be a Marine in the Corps, but I'm going to help you achieve the Marine attitude and toughness." I thought to myself, "Great -- I'm glad he thinks I can. This time, I really don't think I can."

Our fateful journey took us to the mountains of New Mexico in 100-degree temperatures for three days in August. I wanted desperately to be back with my family and friends in Philadelphia, instead of being dropped off with no running water, no McDonald's and no music. My life was over. I was going to die; I really couldn't do this.

Having been told that I was the first person on this trip with diabetes really was not a great motivator either. However, Marine-man assured me he would not let me fail. He said he would help me overcome the roadblocks and was determined to see me through this. It wasn't until later in life that I realized why.

I climbed cliffs, hiked trails, suffered burning feet, ate c-rations and overcame rappelling the mountain. Prior to going down, the instructor said to me, "Marc, life is all about hurdles, challenges, roadblocks and fears. Facing the fear that's stopping you now will train you to face the challenges your diabetes and life may put in front of you. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself." An then he said, "Away you go!"

The rappel was frightening, exhilarating and cleansing at the same time. Halfway down, I stopped to catch my breath and to scream out, "I can do it! My diabetes will not stop me anymore, ever again." I reached the bottom to thundering applause, a little banged up and scratched, but healed of my "can't do's" forever.

A Turning Point

It was in 1979, when I was 29 years old, that I lost an aunt to diabetes complications. I was her Godson and her death had a profound effect on me. While watching her die a slow and horrible death, she said to me right before she died, "Marc, don't do to yourself what I've done to myself. Make a difference!" It was a turning point in my life. I realized by not taking care of myself, I was hurting everyone around me. Instead of treating diabetes as my enemy, I would now treat it as my partner. I began regular doctor visits, began going to diabetes support groups and read everything I could get my hands on about the disease. It was then that I began to reach out for help and to extend myself to help others.

Developing Emotional Muscle

In April of 1984, when I was 34 and thought I had everything under "control," I had the next curve ball thrown at me. I fell two stories from an industrial building onto a concrete floor. My back was broken in a couple of places, and I was temporarily paralyzed. I spent the next several months in a rehab in a complete body cast.

To my amazement, the doctors told me that I had diabetes to thank for my surviving the accident. Say what? The diabetes, they insisted, had made me stronger, giving me the "emotional muscle" needed to fight back. It gave me resilience.

It was at this point that I made a conscious decision to devote the rest of my life to helping people with diabetes. I wanted to educate people about living and winning with the disease.

Because I had spent the first 18 years of my life fighting the disease, and the next 18 making it my partner, I learned to love my life and celebrate my choices. I had chosen to make the most of living with diabetes. Not only was I ready to carry the message to fight the disease, I would back it up with financial contributions and a portion of the proceeds of business.

Ten years ago I developed kidney disease as a result of my disease. However, through a combination of therapy, proper treatment and medication, I have succeeded in stabilizing its progression. Again, my choices liberated me into developing an appreciation for life that I now enjoy. I am not, and never have been, diabetically-challenged. I am empowered and fortified to win this battle. I have chosen to make my life a good one, and it is. Had it not been for diabetes I may never have developed the appreciation for life that I now enjoy.

Giving Back

Seven years ago I started a mail-order pharmacy catering to the special needs of people with diabetes. Tired of scrambling from place to place to shop for medical supplies and medications, I decided that there had to be a better way and decided to create a business that made it easy for people with the disease. We would squabble with the medical insurance companies and do all the necessary administrative work to get reimbursements for patients. By doing this, not only did I fill a true business need, I was also able to donate revenues back to the diabetes community. A percentage of my mail-order pharmacy revenues are donated annually to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International (JDFI). In 1998, the American Diabetes Association was added to the list of recipients.

Twelve years ago I started as a volunteer at the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (JDF) and for the past year, I have served as President of the Philadelphia chapter. I sit on numerous charitable boards and medical boards serving in the capacity of advocate and educator. As an Executive Board Member, one of my most memorable experiences was in the Spring of 1996, when I was summoned to Tel Aviv, Israel to speak at the first international symposium on diabetes at Schneider Medical Center. My topic -- what else? "Winning with Diabetes." What a thrill. I'm learning that the more I give back, the more I receive.

Lessons Learned

This September, I'll mark 37 years with diabetes. Over the years, I have faced many challenges that life has offered. If I live to 100, I'll never be able to express adequate gratitude to my wonderful parents, Harry and Blanche, for their strength and support over the years. One of the biggest rewards in life has been in a special form of friendship by my patient, loyal, and talented business partner, Joel Shpigel, R. Ph. I also will be eternally grateful to my late father-in-law Manny Brown, who not only gave me encouragement and good counsel, he gave me his beautiful daughter -- and the love of my life -- my fantastic wife, Jill. And, in conclusion, I send my thanks to my three coaches, Dr. Robert Kay, Dr. Barney Dlin, and the Marine sergeant on that mountain. They all taught me many valuable lessons: Number one: to laugh through obstacles that diabetes and life can bring. Number two: that I am a functioning person as normal as the next. Number three: there are no failures - just learning experiences. You don't fail until you stop trying. And last, I can do anything that I set my mind to do.


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Last Updated: Wed Jun 25 09:01:40 2003
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