Moama woman lives with diabetes for 50 years, refuses to let it define her

By Anna McGuinness

SHE was only six years old but Moama’s Catherine Sproal knew something wasn’t right.

What she was too young to understand was she was already facing a life sentence.

Catherine said as a child she was constantly thirsty, always drinking water and always going to the toilet.

But as the oldest girl in her family she tried to keep it to herself, so she didn’t worry her mother.

And that was the other thing most six-year-olds don’t quite grasp – mothers see everything, hear everything and, by and large, know everything their children are up to.

Which is why Catherine found herself being whisked off to the doctor.

Where the diagnosis was quickly established – Catherine had type 1 diabetes.

A condition in which the body produces little or no insulin to control blood glucose levels.

Soon after, Catherine was in hospital, playing – or so she thought – by injecting water in a syringe into an orange.

A ‘game’ used to prepare youngsters to eventually turn the needle on themselves.

That was 57 years ago; and this week – National Diabetes Week from July 12-18 – Catherine is being recognised with a Kellion Victory Medal by Diabetes Victoria for living with the condition for 50 years.

Growing up, Catherine said she initially struggled with the disruption of diabetes.

“I could never have a lolly, there were no sugar free options at the time and when I went to school I couldn’t buy food from the canteen,” she said.

“When I was a teenager, I absolutely hated it.

“I didn’t want a part of it, I often thought of not doing my injections, stuffing it all, but I was too cautious of ‘what happens if I die?’, so I continued doing it because I knew I had to.

“Then you get to a stage where it just becomes another part of your daily life and you just live with it,” she said.

Initially, to inject insulin, Catherine had to use a glass syringe which she kept in a Vegemite jar filled with methylated spirits.

“I hated it, because you had to pull it out with tweezers and then you’ve got metho on your fingers and they would smell for a long time even though I washed them,” she said.

“So, the best invention was when disposable syringes came in, that was really great,” she said.

She also had to manually record her blood glucose levels, sometimes smudging the numbers a little to try to impress her mother and doctor.

Her first endocrinologist, Professor Pincus Taft, became a life-long friend to Catherine, and was her diabetes specialist until she was married in her twenties.

She said she remembers when he told her she was now allowed to eat four Salada biscuits instead of two – and what a treat it was.

Fortunately, the management of diabetes has modernised, Catherine now uses an insulin pump, making her life a lot easier.

Working as a primary school teacher for more than 30 years, a job she loved, she found her diabetes was also a good lesson for her students.

“I looked on my class as a little family and we looked after each other,” she said.

“I said to my class at the start of the year, you’ve got to look after me and I’ll look after you, if I need help I’ll let you know – quick, run and get the principal – and they were really good.

“But I never had an issue, it was never a problem,” she said.

Catherine’s biggest supporter throughout it all has been her husband Neil.

“He’s always been there for me and he’s been through a lot with me,” she said.

“One morning, when my daughter Melissa was barely two years old, Neil couldn’t wake me up.

“He got a doctor in straight away and even the doctor couldn’t get me awake – I’d gone into a hypo (hypoglycaemia) through the night.

“When I did wake I had paramedics beside me, police in my room, an ambulance helicopter was in the paddock around the corner, neighbours had come to the support of Neil and Melissa,” she said.

Despite more than 30 years since that night, it’s had a lasting impact on Catherine.

“I refuse to go to bed under a blood sugar level of 8 because I’m frightened of going into a hypo at night, you always have that fear of whether you are going to get through the night,” she said.

Even with some challenges along the way, Catherine said diabetes has never held her back.

“Neil and I have travelled to different parts of the world, and more recently we’ve gone on cruises every couple of years – these days it’s so easy,” she said.

She said she wouldn’t have been able to do it without her mum, Neil, and daughters, Melissa and Bethany.

“I’m very grateful and thankful to the people who have done it with me, and I just love life – diabetes has never defined me or stopped me.”