Like Father, Like Daughter: Eye Health From a Family With Type 1
By Natalie Sainz
Randall Barker, who has had type 1 diabetes for over 30 years and lost his vision, shares lessons learned with Emma, his teenage daughter with type 1 diabetes, about the importance of their eye health.
Randall Barker had diabetes for over 25 years when he first experienced a ruptured blood vessel in his eye that led to a loss of vision. It produced a blob in the center of his vision that would not go away. That was when he began learning about diabetic retinopathy.
Sustained high blood glucose levels can cause diabetic retinopathy, a condition that may show no symptoms at first. If left untreated, it can cause vision loss or even blindness. Between 40-45% of people with diabetes in the US have this condition. People with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy. Read more about this complication here.
Randall started learning about the importance of his eye health at a summer camp he started attending when he was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 10 years old. “Of course as a child, I didn’t really pay attention or listen to it,” said Barker, who is now 41. “It wasn’t until five years ago that the complication finally caught up with me.”
Since experiencing his first episode of retinopathy, he has had laser treatments and eye injections to restore his vision. He also sees an ophthalmologist regularly and gets annual dilated eye exams.
People can have diabetes for a long time before they experience trouble with their eye health. Randall has learned that it’s never too early to take preventive measures against diabetic retinopathy.
“There are preventative treatments out there,” Randall said. “I would go a step further and see a retina specialist rather than just do basic annual exams.”
To prevent diabetic retinopathy, it’s important to have regular screenings with a comprehensive eye examination, in addition to keeping your blood glucose levels in range. You may also consider seeing a retina specialist.
The best way to prevent diabetic retinopathy is to maintain glucose levels in range. The American Diabetes Association’s Standards of Care recommends spending at least 70% time in range (70-180 md/dL).
Randall didn’t let his daughter take the same wait and see approach he did. “I hold her accountable because this is not something you can blow off,” said Randall.
Emma, his 19-year-old daughter who has had diabetes for 9 years, makes sure to see an eye doctor twice a year and completes eye scans.
“I was scared to see my dad go through that not only because that’s my dad,” she said, “but also because I have type 1 diabetes and it made me think a lot about how I was managing my own diabetes.”
She has learned about the importance of keeping her blood sugar levels in range, especially noting when her levels are too high. She also encourages her dad to pay more attention to his own diabetes management.
“I’ll snoop on his blood sugars and say, ‘hey, dad you’re running a bit high.’ We have each other’s back to make sure we’re both doing well,” Emma said.
If you are diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, there are treatment options depending on the severity of the condition. Randall had two separate retinopathy episodes and his vision has returned. Treatment can range from medication to surgery; you should speak with your doctor to determine which is best for you.
“We are both extremely cognizant of our blood sugars, and we both follow each other’s progress,” he said. “Like when you go to the gym and you have your gym accountable partner, we are each other’s diabetes management partners. I also probably give her less slack than a parent who doesn’t have diabetes and doesn’t fully get all the ins and outs.”
If you are experiencing issues with your eye health, it’s important to see a specialist right away. “It was an eye opening moment that I needed to take better care of my diabetes, and that I need to be as preventative as possible,” said Randall.
For more about maintaining healthy vision and understanding your screening results, see: