As a young girl, Deborah Dennison was thin, frail and in and out of hospitals. While other kids ran and played outside, her brittle bones forced her to the sidelines. Frequent fluctuations in blood sugars and an ever-present risk of losing consciousness made school activities a challenge. And the six shots of insulin required each day along with specific diet restrictions and physical limitations made it difficult to forge lasting friendships.
Despite her best efforts, and the encouragement and support of her parents, diabetes controlled every inch of her life from adolescence into adulthood.
“When you have this disease, it wears on you every day,” says Deborah, 57, who lives in Edinburg. “My parents are everything to me. I don’t know where I would be without them.”
Deborah made the best of her situation and carved out a life that worked for her. She managed several acres of land and a six-bedroom, country house heated only by firewood. She’s worked in the medical and pharmacy industries, always holding down steady employment. With 10 siblings, she dreamed of a big family of her own but was challenged by her disease. At 34 she adopted a young relative, John Michael, a sweet 7-year-old boy who changed her world for the better, and in a twist of fate, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 18.
“I raised him as a single parent, and there were times when I worked two to three jobs,” she says. “It was hard, but I was still able to live a very full life.”
In 2017, Deborah established care with endocrinologist, Chaitanya Kumar Mamillapalli, MD, at Springfield Clinic’s Diabetes Wellness Center. Almost immediately, she remembers thinking she was in good hands.
“When I first met Dr. M, I explained to him how much I struggle. There was a white board in the room, and he wrote down exactly how he wanted to help me. He wanted the best for me, and that’s what a good doctor is all about.”
In March 2018, Deborah tripped on a walker while working as a server at a local steakhouse. She dropped a tray full of food and fell into a sea of glass shattering her knee. Although her injury was significant, she could only afford so much down time for recovery and was back to work shortly after.
Each night she would fight through the pain expecting it to get better, but it only intensified. Then one day she noticed a small blister on her toe. Not long after she started limping. When a doctor took her shoe off to examine the injury, Deborah’s foot was black.
“It all happened so fast,” she says. “I just went back to work too soon. The infection grew from the blister and just kept getting worse.”
That night, Deborah’s left, big toe was amputated. One week later, surgeons removed half her foot.
“The doctors gave me a 10 percent chance of living,” she says. “I had sepsis and was in intensive care the whole first week. I remember opening my eyes and the nurses at my side saying they had done a second surgery. I looked down and could tell half of my foot was gone.”
It wasn’t long before doctors realized the tissue damage was even more widespread, and the infection ran deep into the bone. Deborah’s third surgery was a left leg amputation. In total, she spent 39 days hospitalized at Memorial Medical Center.
Despite always having insurance, Deborah was never able to afford advanced diabetes-management devices. While in the hospital, doctors encouraged her to apply for Social Security disability benefits, which would allow her access to the latest in technological advancements for patients with Type 1 diabetes: insulin pumps and continuous glucose monitors (CGM).
“New technologies have transformed the way we manage diabetes,” says Dr. Mamillapalli. “Sensor integrated pumps automatically modify insulin dose and delivers amounts based on readings from the CGM. This prevents hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia and cuts down the fluctuations of the blood glucose levels. It gives patients the confidence they need to live their daily lives.”
The treatment consists of a tiny sensor inserted under the skin of a patient’s stomach or arm. Every few minutes, the device sends the reading wirelessly to a pump that regulates and delivers the exact amount of insulin a patient needs. No shots, no finger sticks and no more worrying about losing consciousness due to blood sugar fluctuations.
“It has changed everything for me,” says Deborah. “All my thoughts about having diabetes and my struggles have changed dramatically for the better. It’s like I’m a new person. And I don’t have to worry about someone finding me unconscious.”
“All patients with Type 1 diabetes should be on a CGM, and in the right context will benefit from a CGM integrated insulin pump,” says Dr. Mamillapalli. “In Deborah’s case, this has given her significant independence and a much improved quality of life.”
Thanks to her treatment combination, prosthetic leg and a labrador retriever named Leo, Deborah has become quite active. She’s healthier, happier and has never felt more energetic. Even faced with a COVID-19 diagnosis this past winter, she managed a full recovery.
While the events of the past few years have altered her life in unimaginable ways, she can still see a silver lining. Her faith has grown deeper and relationships stronger. She now has time for the activity she loves most—horseback riding. And each day she wakes up with the goal of taking nothing for granted. Because as she says, we all get one life, and it’s our job to make the most of it.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways. It’s been a journey. Losing my leg was one of the hardest, most devastating, life-changing events. But in the end, a little good came out of it.”
At Springfield Clinic’s Diabetes Wellness Center, our providers, certified diabetes educators, registered dietitian and nursing staff are eager to educate patients on how to better manage their diabetes and regularly work with insurance companies to help maximize treatment options. For more information, call 217.528.7541 and ask for Endocrinology.