College life and Diabetes

March 14, 2023 | By Tino Dzikiti

Life with diabetes in college is like diabetes everywhere, maybe it’s what you do that differs in this scenario. You are definitely not alone in this space but you might feel you are initially. People take their time to be who they really are and not pretend to be fictional, or normal, as they describe it.

I got diagnosed in 7th grade (primary school). My transition period to high school and all my hopes for a boarding school were all shattered. I was the first person in my family to be diagnosed with a chronic illness. I had a terrible experience in my first months of diagnosis, we had to learn everything together as a family, with no previous experience dealing with something like this it was an extremely difficult period for everyone. As people shared their knowledge with us, we became more mindful of a few things, however almost every morning I was struggling with severe hypos. At times they resulted in a coma. There was nothing much that could have been done then, except hoping after little pinches of sugar would restore my consciousness. I had hypo unawareness and nobody knew the best correctional measures to help prevent those unpleasant episodes.

My diagnosis came at a very late stage during completion of my primary school. My objective to get into boarding school seemed to be a thing of the past following my diagnosis. Thus, the thought of me enrolling at a college of my choice, was largely determined by the fact that I wanted to get away from the comfort of our home. However, it was quite difficult for my family to let go, considering my high school experiences which were filled with miserable scenes of collapsing due to severe hypos, hugely as a result of my hesitations to take food during the times I was extremely busy. I was slowly trying to figure out these uncomfortable hormones trolling on me. It was during my freshman year (1st year in college) when I got involved with my local Diabetes Association that I realized there was a bright future for me regardless of being a person living with type 1 diabetes. I launched my own website and uploaded my diagnosis story. Within a period fortnight, it was trending online. It became clearer to me, that there is power in patient voices, hence #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs.

Alas, my family was filled with anxiety, about my health and well-being. I booked myself an appointment with my doctor for a “real talk” about my diabetes and how to best treat it, hoping to get enough motivation or encouragement. The plan was a success; a supporting letter got drafted to convince the school authorities to provide me with the necessary support such as on-campus accommodation. It is very challenging/demanding to secure on-campus accommodation, but fortunately it was assured that my spot was permanent until my final year. Indeed, my parents were extremely relieved, as my meal plans and daily injections were guaranteed in an ideal timeframe.

I was always open about living with type 1 diabetes, taking responsibilities to ensure my health. It goes without saying that, “time off” from diabetes really isn’t ever possible. The American Diabetes Association suggests that “diabetes is a complex, chronic illness requiring continuous medical care with multifactorial risk-reduction strategies beyond glycemic control.” Fortunately, with my college student health cover, I had access to all the basic necessities like syringes, insulin and Doctor’s consultations. Thanks to the generous donations from the Life for A Child, that enables Zimbabwe Diabetes Association to provide all the children under the age 25yrs with FREE diabetes supplies, I was guaranteed at least somewhat good quality of life. This is an extraordinary initiative by such a program to help save lives, especially for the less privileged families within low-middle income countries.

Achieving targeted glycemic control is difficult for so many people living with type 1 diabetes, especially those who do not have access to a continuous or flash glucose monitoring devices. Genuinely, for eight years after being diagnosed, I wasn’t a person who would perform blood glucose tests regularly, because they were expensive to obtain. I think that I was satisfied managing diabetes without the necessary supplies as the thought of having enough seemed like a luxury. Undoubtedly, frequent blood glucose test can be critical in leading a good quality lifestyle and help in the prevention of acute complications, reducing the risk of long-term complications. I speak from experience, during the time I was in college I just had enough but I just didn’t have the courage to take full advantage of it all.

However, I had one awful experience that put me into the hospital for 4 hours. I went into DKA (a serious complication of diabetes that occurs when the liver produces high levels of blood acids called “ketones”). What’s most frightening was that the healthcare providers from the local hospital were not knowledgeable enough about diabetes. Fortunately, I was conscious and quite aware that I needed a hospital assistance. I had walked myself to the clinic after my glucometer had recorded an absurd number/measurement. I informed the Doctor that I was already on medication because  I noticed him trying to determine the treatment to prescribe or whether to admit me into the hospital. Following that discussion we came to the conclusion that getting a drip was the best treatment option.

Above all, I have always been open about my condition and almost everyone from my circle knew I had diabetes. Thankfully, I have never needed their assistance. I'm uncertain how reliable they would have been considering that not much is known about diabetes within my community, despite of the efforts of other patient advocates like myself.

I decided to venture into podcast where I started to host dynamic voices within the diabetes community (people living with diabetes, caregivers and Healthcare Providers), sharing from their diverse personal experiences and expert opinions. I believed this was a way to help educate, encourage, inspire the diabetes community!

I was perceived differently from what other people with diabetes often shared about the subject of discrimination and stigmatization. My school peers always doubted whether l was a person living with diabetes or not. I could say everyone has their own imagination of what someone with diabetes was supposed and not supposed to do. Some thought, l was living a lie, just so l could get the preferences and privileges of on-campus accommodation. My conclusion was, they didn’t know enough about diabetes. This was discrimination indirectly or in disguise.

In conclusion people living with diabetes in college, will undoubtedly have several ups and downs, however I learnt that we can thrive and conquer. I’m extremely humbled and grateful to the international Diabetes Online Community (DOC) and the Life for a Child program, for the unwavering support they have bestowed upon me and so many others. Therefore, college life and diabetes, like diabetes at any other time in life can be both discomforting and rewarding however, it is most importantly to keep learning how to best care for yourself!!!

Tinotenda Dzikiti

Tino defines community in so many ways and will be sharing stories about living with diabetes in Zimbabwe. He is prolific across his podcast and blog and regular social media posts.
The opinions presented in this blog post are those of the author and may not represent the opinions of Ascensia Diabetes Care. Ascensia have paid Tino an honorarium for his services as a contributor to this blog.