By Jasmine Willis
ATLANTA — A local woman was awarded the Lilly Diabetes Journey Medal for 50 years of living with type-one diabetes.
Peggy Sue Kern, 61, of Atlanta was one of the first in her area to be diagnosed with type-one diabetes in 1970. She was a fifth grader in Wayland Central School at the time she was given the diagnosis. In those days type-one diabetes was rare, and treatments were fairly new. She had to start out on glass syringes. For the last 25 years she has lived with an insulin pump that gives her the medicine she needs to survive at a much easier pace.
Eli Lilly and Corporation reached out to Kern via mail and presented her with this prestigious award on Feb. 14. The foundation established this award by the founder’s namesake and grandson Col. Eli Lilly in 1975. They award people who have successfully managed their diabetes with insulin for 50 years.
“Each person’s journey with diabetes is unique, and maintaining an active life along with a daily diabetes regimen takes constant effort and great discipline. We at Lilly hope that our innovations in diabetes treatment, including the introduction of commercial insulin more than 90 years ago, as well as recent advancements, have provided support to you along the way,” David Ricks, Eli Lilly and Corporation chairman wrote. “It is my sincere pleasure mark this milestone with you. Your success is inspirational and strengths our own resolve as we continue to seek ways to make life better for you and others around the world.”
The world in which Kern received the life sentence of type-one diabetes didn’t have throw away syringes or those devices you check your sugar on. In 1970 the 11-year-old had to use big glass syringes and pee on a stick to check her sugar intake. Her mother was constantly worried about her daughter’s illness. Kern had to eat lunch twice at school to keep her sugar balanced, once with the other children and once with the lunch ladies in the afternoon.
“I went through all of the changes in type-one diabetes treatment. I was the only one in my school who had it. I was picked on by the other students since they didn’t understand what my illness was about. I had lunch at 11 am with the other students. I had a sandwich with the lunch ladies at 2 pm so I would keep my sugars balanced,” Kern said. “I remember when I was diagnosed. I had been feeling really dizzy at school. At first, we thought it was my anxiety. It was the third week of June and we were taking our finals. I found when I was given milk and crackers at the office I felt better. My parents took me to St. James Hospital and my sugar was 800. It was supposed to be 100. I was kept there for two weeks.”
Kern’s doctor was Dr. James Pullman (famous actor Bill Pullman’s father) who taught her how to use the glass syringes on an orange before using them on herself. Kern said she has always taken her own insulin shots. She never made anyone else do it for her.
“I have always taken my own insulin shots. My mother always wanted to help me when I was a kid. I just felt like it was always my responsibility. I was told by Dr. Pullman I had to do this for the rest of my life to stay alive. I felt like it was up to me to keep myself alive. All the normal illnesses like colds and the flu hit my harder than anyone else. I would be sick for much longer,” Kern said.
When the insulin pumps came out this was a blessing for those with type-one diabetes. Kern was one of the first in the area to get one. She had to go up to Strong Memorial Hospital to figure out how to use it. She had to see several other doctors in order to use the pump. A small tube goes into the stomach and gives the patient insulin doses as needed. It is changed every three days to avoid infections.
Kern said she is very proud to have the Lilly Diabetes Journey Medal. She hopes to get the 75-year Lilly Diabetes Journey Medal next. Not many with type-one diabetes made it 50 years on insulin.
“You can live with this illness and still have a good life. I am living proof of that. I want to help inspire others who are battling diabetes to take care of themselves. I have known many who had it half as long as me who have already lost limbs and fingers since they refused to take their medicines. I haven’t lost any limbs. I take my insulin every day. I have had it most of my life. This is all I have ever known,” Kern said. “I am a member of the Atlanta Fire Department and Cohocton Valley Ambulance. I was a girl scout leader, part-time librarian, and election inspector. You can have a fulfilling life with type-one diabetes. I never felt sorry for myself. I never gave up. It is a chronic illness, but that doesn’t mean you can’t live a long time. Don’t let it stop your life.”