I called my pharmacy today to refill my short-acting insulin prescription, and tomorrow morning I’ll hop in my car, drop off my wife, and pick it up. Then, perhaps, I’ll go get some lunch, then head up to the music school where I teach piano and get my studio ready for the first week of lessons. It will be a mundane day of errands. Except one of those errands represents an absolute miracle that has single-handedly kept me alive for the past 19 years.
Insulin was isolated in 1921 and was first given to a person with diabetes in 1922. Prior to that date, diabetes was simply a death sentence. I remember hearing that prior to the advent of insulin, doctors would sometimes put patients on a diet of nothing but hard liquor, liquor, as the story went, being the only thing that can go straight to our cells without needing insulin to get it there. And naturally, this solution didn’t really solve the problem, but perhaps extended one’s life a few extra weeks. Now, I have no idea if that’s true — it’s something I heard from other Diabetians at summer camp or some such thing. But true or not, it illustrates the point. Diabetes has been a manageable condition for LESS than 100 years.
Since 1921, the insulin we use has evolved tremendously. We’ve gone from using animal insulin to using rDNA engineered insulin. Even in my own lifetime, things have changed. When I first started on insulin, fast-acting wasn’t available yet. I took “Regular” and “long-acting.” The Regular insulin lasted in the blood for a solid eight hours, and took at least 30 minutes to kick in. It couldn’t simply be taken before a meal. Rather, meals had to be planned and timed around the injections. When fast-acting insulin became available, and I could suddenly deviate from my meal schedule, it was a life-changing moment.
Talking about something as clearly life-altering as insulin, the word miraculous doesn’t seem too grandiose. It quite literally has saved millions of lives, including those of most everyone reading this. So yes, it’s a miracle. But it’s not the only one. That list of mundane errands tomorrow represents a whole string of miracles — a whole string of inventions, innovations, and discoveries made by humans. The car I’ll drive, the building I’ll walk into to pick up my insulin, the highway between the pharmacy and the music school, the instruments IN the music school.
Of course, what we’ve done with these innovations hasn’t always been wise. We’re seeing some of the consequences of our past innovations now, as we grapple with a changing climate impacted by human activity, as we recover from a financial system we built and then let run away from us, and as we see the ongoing tragedy of modern warfare. But that’s another conversation, and veers into political and deeply divided waters. I think all can agree that insulin represents the absolute best of the human drive to solve problems, discover the secrets of the universe, and turn that discovery process into tangible results.
Most people don’t get to directly experience the payoff of that human quest for knowledge quite like we Diabetians do. Sure, we’d all trade diabetes in tomorrow if someone said we could return it. But there is something kind of incredible about living day-to-day, taking each breath, knowing that we are the benefactors of an incredible human drive to understand the natural world and use that knowledge for good. It’s a gift — not as miraculous as the insulin itself, but a gift nonetheless.
Diabetes is many things, some good, some bad, some downright horrible. But in the end, no one is guaranteed to be alive tomorrow. All any of us have is right now. And whatever “right now” is filled with for you — happiness, sadness, anger, pain, guilt, joy, success, failure, compassion, jealousy, or love — it’s worth taking a moment to simply be thankful and awestruck that our “right now” even exists at all. It exists thanks to a miracle that happened in 1921. As I kiss my wife goodnight, I remember that. As I drive to work, I remember that. What a gift we’ve been given.