Krystal clear passionAt age 24, Krystal Boyea is leading a full life with diabetes. (Picture by Gercine Carter.)
By Gercine Carter | Sun, January 01, 2012 - 1:25 PM
At age 24, Krystal Boyea is fast becoming the recognized face and voice of diabetes in Barbados.
As the International Diabetes Federation’s (IDF) first regional youth representative for the North American and Caribbean region, she is on a mission. Through her advocacy, Krystal aims to raise awareness about diabetes by being a powerful voice for prevention, education, access to quality care, improved quality of life, and the end of discrimination worldwide.
The IDF selected the young Barbadian as spokesperson when a Barbados delegation participated in the recent Young Leaders In Diabetes Programme as part of the World Diabetes Congress 2011 in Dubai.
Krystal told the SUNDAY SUN diabetes was “a very lonely disease”.
“You do have friends and family who are around you always to support you, but you do need another diabetic that you can call up and talk to.”
She should know, as someone who has been battling with diabetes for the past 14 years.
“I was ten. I showed the normal symptoms – loss of weight, frequent urination, excessive thirst . . . . I was in St Winifred’s Christmas pantomime and I was losing a lot of weight, so much so, they had to take in my costume a few times. January came and it just kept getting worse. One morning, mum woke up and I had all six or seven water bottles from the fridge set down beside my bed empty and I was still going to the sink drinking water.”
It was the critical warning sign which pushed Krystal’s mother Susan and her father Cally Boyea to get her to a doctor. Tests on the urine sample confirmed their fears – Type 1 diabetes (also referred to as juvenile diabetes).
But their daughter was a brave ten-year-old who now recalls: “I was not scared. I don’t think at that age it really registered when the doctor said you have diabetes.”
What she also did not understand was that she would be forced to manage a lifetime problem.
“I just thought, ‘Okay, let’s get this thing cured and send me on my way’.”
Instead, she was taken from the doctor’s office and admitted to the Children’s Ward of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where she was given her first lesson in administering the insulin which she learnt she would have to inject into her system three times daily.
“I was told by the doctor that diabetes is a lifelong disease and I am going to have to take insulin injections multiple times daily. When I got to the hospital and tried the needle the first time, it was not easy, but it got easier as I went along. I told myself if I am going to have to do this for the rest of my life, why not let me start now, and I have never let anybody inject me since other than when I am sick.”
The diagnosis made school life difficult for the ten-year-old. The innocent cruelty of other students then has helped to drive Krystal in the onerous mission she has undertaken to remove the stigma associated with diabetes.
“I used to get a lot of children teasing me and rubbing candy bars in my face. It was difficult for me to manage my sugars during school and I went through a really bad phase in third and fourth form where I was sick all the time. I repeated fourth form after spending the entire fourth form in the sick room.”
At that tender age, she was forced to deal with her illness as well as the harsh treatment of teachers who did not understand the disease, often accusing her of faking illness to get out of classes when in truth she was suffering the effect of low blood sugar.
Today as an adult, Krystal recognizes “as a diabetic you will always have low blood sugar or high blood sugar even though you have done everything right”.
She has faced crises along the way, the most frightening for her family being while she was studying for her CAPE examinations as a Queen’s College student.
She had set the alarm to wake her early. But when her mother heard it going off repeatedly, she checked her daughter’s room only to find Krystal out cold, on the verge of slipping into a coma.
That experience and others have sharpened her awareness about her condition.
“I don’t mess around. I want to live for a long time. I check my blood sugar a lot. The moment I start to slip, I can feel it, I don’t even have to test.”
She tests her blood sugar levels at least four times a day.
“During the Christmas season when I am eating a lot of foods that I don’t normally eat on a regular basis, I test before I eat, two hours after I eat and before I go to bed. When I am out at night with my friends, I test while I am out.
“When I have a drink, I test because I hear too many stories about people who overdo it and don’t live to tell the tale.
“I don’t put anything in my mouth unless I think about it. I can enjoy food, but I have asked my sister more than once how it feels to eat without first having to calculate what it is going to do to your body.”
The experience in Dubai has lifted her spirits and she confidently acknowledges: “I am diabetic”. The low self-esteem which plagued her throughout childhood because she was diabetic has gone.
“I am on an insulin pump and I usually wear it on my arm or my back, so it is very visible to the public. So I do have to stand up every day and tell people I am diabetic; I don’t have a choice.
“I put on my pump everywhere I go and I do get a lot of stares, but I don’t care if people see it.”
And people do notice the device – which dispenses doses of insulin throughout the day – and they ask questions: “Is it a smoker’s patch?” “Is it birth control?”
Or, as the curious elderly woman in the supermarket enquired: “Is it the new Nokia phone?”
They get answers and explanations from Krystal, happy to respond because she sees it as part of the whole process of education and getting rid of the “huge” stigma.
“Diabetes is just diabetes,” she argues.
She has thrown herself headlong into the volunteer work which “just fell into my lap” and which is threatening to consume her. But for the Diabetes Association of Barbados, she is a godsend to get their message across.
As a result, the environmental science and geology graduate now finds herself at the crossroads of career choices. Though she has worked briefly in her field of study, she confesses being consumed by her passion to help others with diabetes.
“Right now, I am at the stage of ‘what do I do?’ On the one hand, there is the environment which is what I studied, and I do love it to a certain extent. But I absolutely love all the stuff I have been doing in diabetes. This is what I want to do . . . . My self-esteem has gone up so much because in helping people you help yourself.
It is therapy for me and it is going to be who I am forever. It is a huge passion for me and both my parents are beginning to see that now.
“Diabetes is not what I studied, but it is who I am.”
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