I Had COVID-19 and Type 1 Diabetes
By Cynthia Katsingris
Thirty years of diabetes management prepared me to take care of my body, fight COVID-19, and recover from the virus
I have type 1 diabetes, and I was diagnosed with COVID-19. And I recovered. I’m here to tell you my story and to tell you how diabetes prepared me to fight against the coronavirus.
I’m a hard-working, happily married mom of two who lives right outside of New York City. Although my life has been filled with many challenges, I am now living my dream. I founded ThisDiabetic.com, where I design items that make life with diabetes easier, bringing empowerment and awareness to the condition.
I’m sharing my story of coronavirus to suggest to you that maybe diabetes isn’t the weakness we’ve been told it is. Yes, I did get sick from COVID-19, but so did many others without chronic illness. Maybe the burden of dealing with a chronic illness makes us more likely to find ways to fight an infectious disease, and that resilience assists our battle.
I went from being utterly terrified of catching COVID-19 to testing positive for the virus. Every day, several times a day, I would hear news reports that the people most vulnerable to the virus are the elderly and people with diabetes. Although I’ve always lived by the idea that “mindset is everything,” this fear of coronavirus made me aware that even my own positive mindset had limits.
My early symptoms matched most of what was being reported around the world, and my internal assessment ping-ponged back and forth, settling on the realization that I probably had COVID-19. My fear was instantly replaced with an unshakable determination to fight this virus. Oddly enough, I found that being a person with diabetes made me feel empowered and more experienced in the face of a health crisis; I was more aware of the intricate workings of my body and had knowledge that a person without diabetes, I assume, would not have. People with diabetes strive for mastery of how food, sleep, stress, illness, and so many other factors affect the body and its blood sugar levels – and I could use that to my advantage. At the very moment of my own certainty of a positive diagnosis I found myself telling each and every one of my cells: NOT IN MY BODY!
Welcome to the mindset of a T1D, level 30, warrior (level 30 for the 30 years I’ve lived with type 1). Our warrior training comes in the form of 24/7 challenges, challenges that our beloved diabetes care and education specialists (DCES) or doctors teach us to manage but are relentlessly honed by our experiences. Every decision we make gives us information we can collect and hopefully use to craft a better response next time. And as always, life throws a curve ball like we've never seen and reminds us, yet again, that people with diabetes are never done learning.
It started with an uneasiness and an unrelenting temple-to-temple headache. I haven't had a headache in years. This was followed by fever and then a cough. At the beginning of the pandemic my husband was commuting to New York City, and then transitioned to working from home. A countdown was in place as we sheltered, checking off the days according to reports that after two weeks without illness we would all be safe from asymptomatic exposure – I made it all the way to day 11 before the headache set in. My two children, like my husband, did not develop symptoms, though my husband lost his sense of taste and smell a few days before I got sick. In hindsight, this should have been a warning sign of our exposure, and like his, my taste and sense of smell soon disappeared as well. My husband was my care partner; though we did not establish total quarantine, we were very cautious to disinfect and distance ourselves.
I voraciously read scientific papers about the virus, so I was able to break the situation into unemotional parts and focus intently, like we do with diabetes, on the parts I could control. I used what I learned to support my body in many different ways, taking lots of vitamins and supplements. With diabetes, we are always analyzing our data in order to create and increase desired outcomes. I tackled COVID-19 in the same way: what are the obstacles, what helps remove the obstacles, and what supports my return to health?
I had sick day plans but quickly found that, oddly, my blood sugars were not spiking, even with fever – I welcomed not having to chase numbers. I wondered if all the years of diligent diabetes care were helping my blood sugars stay in-range in this situation. I continued taking my regular doses of long-lasting and short-acting insulin even though I had no appetite and wasn't really eating. That dosing was enough to take care of any elevated numbers I might have seen from being sick. Even though I wear a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), I used my meter to avoid possible incorrect blood glucose readings due to tissue compression while I was spending all day in bed. I kept fruit squeezers (pouches of applesauce-like fruit) for lows and a thermometer on my nightstand, and I recorded my blood glucose numbers at all hours of the day and night. My fevers lasted for two days and subsided on the third. With the fevers gone and my blood sugars in-range, I felt relieved to be getting better.
But by the end of the fourth day, my breathing became constricted, and I knew this was not a mild case of COVID-19. I woke the next morning with a low-grade fever and panicked. I called my doctor who instructed me to get tested and take Tylenol as needed. I continued to rest and dive into more research, now focusing only on how to help my lungs. As people with diabetes, we get knocked down all the time, and our response is always to get back up, leave mistakes in the past, and continue, no matter what. This is why we are called warriors. I believe that researching and taking extra measures to support my body (and not giving up looking for solutions when it got precarious) kept me out of the hospital and now solidly on the mend.
My doctor sent me to a COVID-19 testing facility close to my home. I parked and walked up to the outside of the entrance where I was told to wait. A healthcare worker who was fully suited with protective equipment came and spoke to me through the glass, collecting my information and assessing if I was eligible to be officially tested. I was scared of contaminating others and was grateful that intense safety measures were in place. All of the healthcare workers were not only kind and efficient, but confident, which made a world of difference to me.
I was instructed to drive to a makeshift, drive-up tent that housed two healthcare workers. Bless these people; they came to my car and proceeded to follow protocol, which included swabbing my nose through my left and right nostril. The swabs went so far up my nose that I am still certain they removed a couple of thoughts. They instructed me to do two things: stay isolated in my home and call them if I had any trouble breathing. That was it! I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, the only instructions are to be completely alone and to call them if I can’t breathe? What about more information on the virus and what it does within the body? No information on any foods that support the immune system? No exercises to assist the lungs? Don't pneumonia patients do something... anything?”
I left feeling grateful that diabetes had taught me all it had because in this situation I deeply understood that supplying the body with what it needs influences my experience. People with diabetes take over the job of an organ, and this trains us to pay attention to our bodies more intently, understand cause and effect, and react to changes. With COVID-19, my approach was to take vitamins and supplements to stop viral replication, boost immune function, assist cellular function, and support the lungs while paying close attention to my body's responses. It took a few days for my breathing to become better. Without diabetes I don’t think I would have approached supporting my body’s healing in this way. Every step toward recovery wasn’t perfect, but by making adjustments I could tell I was finally heading in the right direction. It took almost a week for New Jersey’s Department of Health to call and confirm a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, which was followed by a call from my healthcare team, with the same information. By this time, though, I had passed through the most dangerous part of the illness on my own.
The coronavirus has shown the entire world that there are things that humans can’t control, but that does not mean we have no control. Our focus, like with diabetes, should be on what we can control. The human body is one of the most amazing things – I believe dealing with diabetes and its daily threats gave me invaluable physical health assessment skills and the right perspective to handle whatever COVID-19 threw at me. Diabetes has taught me that my actions play an important part in either supporting or undermining the body’s ability to heal. People with diabetes are already very aware that what we eat matters, our mindset matters, and being proactive matters.... period. In the end, this diabetes warrior training served me in lifesaving ways that I could have never predicted. I feel blessed, lucky, and so grateful that my experience with the coronavirus was not as severe as I feared, and that I recovered.