This International Sisters Day, we’ve asked two of our Tidepool employees to talk about how living with a sister with diabetes has impacted their lives.
Derrick is a backend engineer from California whose sister lives with type 2 diabetes. Anja heads up our social media marketing from Melbourne, Australia and has a younger sister living with type 1 diabetes.
What is your sister’s diagnosis story?
Anja: I don’t remember my sister’s diagnosis because I was four-years-old at the time. However, I do remember when she got her first insulin pump a few years later and how much it changed everything. Suddenly, she could be more flexible with her eating and diabetes management. She was constantly carrying this small electronic brick around with her, which our friends thought was a Gameboy. They would ask her if they could play on it, and she had to explain that it wasn’t a toy but something that helped keep her alive.
Derrick: My sister was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 15 years ago. Despite being the husband of a primary care physician, I really did not know what to make of her diagnosis. I did not appreciate how insidious the disease is. I thought that it was her fault for eating poorly. Now I know better.
How has your relationship dynamic changed?
Derrick: After I joined Tidepool, I started to learn more about diabetes. As I learned, I tried to share my knowledge with my sister. Despite my best intentions, it was hard for her to hear what I was telling her — i.e. that diabetes was destroying her body from the inside out. Unfortunately, my approach was unsuccessful and I had to back off.
Since her diagnosis, she has faced a number of complications of diabetes, including: cardiovascular disease (three heart attacks); neuropathy (feet, intestines); retinopathy (loss of vision in one eye); and end stage renal disease on hemodialysis.
Anja: As a kid, having a younger sibling with an autoimmune condition can be very confusing. Your emotions feel more black and white and you’re trying to balance out everything in your head.
Your child brain says, “It’s not fair that my sister gets more attention than me. It’s not fair that my sister gets to eat tons of lollies/sweets.” But equally so, you’re working through thoughts like, “It’s not fair that my sister has to have so many injections. It’s not fair that she can’t always eat whatever she wants at birthday parties.”
I bounced emotionally between those two sides where sometimes I was jealous and competitive, and other times I was protective and generous. I like to think the latter behavior won out most of the time.
Any funny experiences?
Derrick: The funniest experience was when she told me she didn’t want to talk to a friend of mine who had spent over an hour introducing her to sugar-free foods that taste great. She said, “Well, as long as he doesn’t want to talk about diabetes, he can come over.”
Anja: In our family, we’re big believers that laughter makes the best medicine. Unless you live with diabetes, of course — then insulin is probably better. My sister and I like to mess with people by joking that she’s “high as a kite” or “has to go stab herself”.
What is one of the hardest things about your sister’s condition?
Anja: Some of the scariest moments of my life have come about thanks to my sister’s diabetes. We’re in a lucky position in Australia where we have access to good healthcare and supplies, but even so, the risks never fully go away. That’s a terrifying thought and very sobering whenever you’re faced with the reality that diabetes is a life-threatening condition.
Derrick: The hardest part is watching my sister’s quality of life disintegrate in front of my eyes and fearing that she will not live a long life.
Have you taken on additional responsibility as a result of your sister’s condition?
Anja: I think I mentally and emotionally took on more. As an older sibling, it’s your job to protect your little sister, right? I had to learn to step back when her teenage years hit and trust that she knew what she was doing and would let us know if she needed help. That being said, I realize I was shielded from the daily grind of math and problem-solving and the scary diabetes episodes. It was only when I was seventeen or so that I was seriously confronted with the more frightening realities of diabetes like severe highs and lows.
Derrick: My sister has been disabled from complications of diabetes for many years. When she lost her job, she eventually also lost her health insurance coverage. She has accumulated over USD $400,000 in medical bills. A few years ago, she went on dialysis. Once on dialysis, she became eligible to have her health care expenses covered by Medicaid (public health insurance). I provide her with financial support for basic living expenses.
How have you both grown?
Derrick: I have realized that while I can’t fix everything, I can always be empathetic. I think my sister handles being constantly sick with great courage.
Anja: I think we’ve matured quicker than our peers and the experience has helped us grow closer together. She has a very can-do attitude and I’ve learned that sometimes people just need a listening ear rather than unsolicited advice.
What do you love about having a sister?
Anja: She’s one of my best friends. We have so many shared experiences and values but we also approach life from different perspectives. It creates this fantastic mix of intuitively getting what the other sister means, while also challenging each other to grow in how we think, joke, and communicate.
Derrick: My sister’s generosity is seemingly boundless. She cares deeply for others, often placing their needs ahead of her own. Having her as a sister has made me less selfish. She has given me an opportunity to be a better person.