Thursday, January 7, 2010

Meeting in absentia...

I have really wanted to write this and not at the same time. It's not that I don't want it said, but more that I am not sure I have the exact words… I kind of think that there exists something in-between spaces. Like, when you enter an old house and touch a window frame: how many people before you stood and made contact with that point before you? It's like past, present and future all come together in that space. It exists, but doesn't. It's just kind of in-between. History? Memory? Connection, maybe? I don't really know that you can confine it to a word… or perhaps it is a different word for different people in different points of time.

People generally associate the discovery of insulin with the city of Toronto, but no event exists in isolation and there is a backstory to this story. Prior to moving to Toronto to begin his research into diabetes, Frederick Banting lived for a short while in the city of London, Ontario. After kind of a miserable start in private practice Banting also began to teach medicine at the University of Western Ontario. He had no relation to diabetes, but one day a colleague asked him to fill in and give a lecture regarding the pancreas. One evening he lay in bed reading material to prepare for the talk. At 2 am he woke up and wrote down an idea that came to him regarding a possible treatment for diabetes… and that is how his trek to Toronto and the eventual discovery of insulin treatment began. The house where this small moment took place still exist in London. It is now a museum. Most of the house covers various aspects of the site's history, but the bedroom where Banting dreamt his original hypothesis has been preserved.

I visited the space with a friend on Wednesday. As we entered the bedroom the curator told us of the various other visitors to the room. There are, essentially, three groups of people that come to the museum:

(1) the average cultural tourist, with no ties to the issue
(2) researchers:
  • The rational bunch generally decried any sense of mysticism about the room. But eventually there came a point where they would lean on the bed to comment on the wall paper or some other detail of the room. "It's not the mattress," the curator would mention "it's the bed frame that's original" and invariably the researcher(s) would inch back to grasp the bed frame.
  • Of course, there are exceptions to every rule: one gentleman from South America who had been doing diabetes research for over twenty years would was positively giddy as he sat on the bed. He managed to convince the curator that if he was just allowed to have a quick nap in the bed perhaps it would provide the inspiration he needed to cure the condition. The curator noted that if that was all that he needed to come up with a cure, he would sure oblige- and, so, he dimmed the lights and let the researcher have a quick rest in the room.
(3) People who have a direct association with diabetes:
  • A family with a 9-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with diabetes some five years earlier. Though the rest of the family entered to bedroom, she would not enter the room. She merely stood by the door, never crossing the threshold.
  • A woman whose father had been among the first to receive treatment in Europe; this allowed her to be born 15 years later.
  • A young mother whose baby had been recently diagnosed with diabetes. She came into the room, sat on the bed and began sobbing. The curator let her be, but after ten minutes, he could still hear her crying from down the hall. He grabbed a box of Kleenex from his office and went to the room. When he entered and offered a tissue the mother stood up and stopped crying. "No. I don't need that. I will not cry anymore now. I know that my child will be okay." At which, the curator took the Kleenex for himself as he started sobbing.
To the side of the bedroom sat a small shelf with a short write-up and dozens of written cue-cards. Apparently, when the museum opened there were cards placed so that people could leave suggestions and comments regarding the exhibits. Rather, people began to leave notes to Frederick Banting. So, the museum decided instead to leave the cue-cards out for people to inscribe a public message to the late doctor. There were several different languages present. A lot of them looked like children's writing. Most of them were simply put: "Dear Dr. Banting, Thank you."

I sat on the bed. I held onto the railing and in that moment I felt like I was holding the hand of every other person that had entered and held onto that space... including the person that came up with the idea for the research that would eventually save my life just over 70 years later. I can't describe what that felt like and I rather suspect that every person that has sat in that same spot has experienced a different connection to that space. I can tell you this though: when I left that site I no longer hated my body and its misfunction. I will never again feel angry for the regimen that follows being diabetic. Somehow, at that moment I made peace with my body and its broken pancreas, because what I realized in being momentarily transported back to a time when there was no treatment for diabetes is that it was once a inescapable death sentence: that disgusting lethargy and thirst that I felt prior to being diagnosed and medicated is generally how people stayed until they eventually died of a slow starvation over six months to a year tops.

January 16th, 1994 is when I was diagnosed and when that anniversary surfaces next Saturday I won't think of it as
16 years with diabetes, but 16 years of life I wouldn't have had if it weren't for insulin... And for that my note read: "Dear Dr. Banting: Have had diabetes for 15 years; thank you for saving my life."


Crystal said...

I'm still shedding some tears.
Thank you for writing this and sharing. Thank you so very much. Well written, amazing. I felt like I was there, through the years, experiences too.

And thank You, Dr. Banting. Almost 25 years. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. Thank you. My now 22 yr old is about to celebrate his 21st year with type 1. I too am so grateful for the discovery of insulin. Looking forward to sharing your words with many patents of children with diabetes . @curet1diabetes

k2 said...

Beautifully haunting-Thank-you for sharing your experience with us.
And Dr. B, 32 years and I'm still here-Thanks for saving me, my father, my sisters, my nephew, my two aunts, my cousins,& all of my friends with the big D.
I'm forever grateful.
Kelly K

Michael Hoskins said...

Wow. Great writing, capturing not only some of the haunting history but also connecting it to yourself and ALL of us. I want to make the trip myself, now. Thank you for this. And, of course, to Dr. Banting, thank you for giving me the chance to live a life I wouldn't have known without your work and inspiration. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Banting for saving my grandsons life. Charlotte

Anonymous said...

This is a fantastic post, V. Thanks for sharing.

Kelly said...

25 years for me. Thanks, Dr. Banting and thank you for a wonderfully inspiring post. :)

tMac said...

It will be 33 years in March. Dr. Banting, I SO owe you! Thank you for being part of God's plan for extending my life.

Larissa Banting said...

Beautiful post. As a cousin of Dr. Banting, I am so honoured by the work and generosity of Frederick (my grandfather used to go to church with him as a boy back in Alliston). We are so proud of his discovery and insistence on sharing the achievement with his team as well as ensuring that insulin would be available to all who needed it. I hope that his work is complete by a cure soon.

Meri said...

Thank you for this post. It was beautiful. It is just what I needed right now. I have three boys with type 1. Sometimes I need a little bump to be grateful for what I have.
Thanks for the bump. :)

Cherise said...

Thank you for taking me through the museum through your eyes, I wanted to cry! I wanted to cry with the mother who cried one last tear. I wanted to hug you! It takes a lot of strength not to hate something that takes a to on you mentally and physically! I commend you for letting go of it. You were dx'd with diabetes on my birthday. Next year I'll be celebrating my life and your diabetes anniversary. Excellent post. Now, I want to visit the musuem (sp)

Colleen said...

Thanks for posting this. You really made feel that I was there.

Anonymous said...

I keep this link to your blog piece on my facebook wall and return to it once in a great while. My son just graduated from college and thanks to Dr. Banting he is sleeping down the hall from me. Thank you for your poignant piece, and thank you Dr. Banting for acting on and pursuing that late night thought all those years ago. Forever grateful....

Cari Goossens said...

It really is very difficult to describe the feeling when in Dr. Banting's bedroom. Its as though time stops, nothing else in the world matters and so many emotions surface to an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and sadness.

My son, Justin Goossens (now 12 years old) was diagnosed with diabetes when he was just 14 months old on May 13, 1999. It was so scary to see his little body becoming weak and thin but relieving and devastating when the source of his illness was discoverd. He has his moments, few and far between, when living with Diabetes frustrates him and he breaks down, but I can say he is a very strong, positive, and excellent role model to anyone living with or without Diabetes. I love you Justin... wish I could trade you pancreas' and relieve you of your daily struggles.

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