Being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes 13 years ago, led Bridget McNulty on a mission to raise awareness of the disease and improve the quality of life of all diabetics.
Bridget McNulty was on the brink of a new adventure. She had just moved to Cape Town, started her first full-time job as a writer at a prestigious magazine and had just published her first novel, Strange Nervous Laughter, when her life suddenly took a dramatic turn.
‘I had all the classic symptoms of Type 1 diabetes: I was constantly hungry, yet I was losing weight, thirsty all the time and I felt the need to urinate frequently – especially at night. I knew something was wrong, but I kept dismissing my symptoms. I had convinced myself that my chronic fatigue was simply part of being a grown-up. By the time I was eventually diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I was three days away from a life-threatening coma. A normal blood sugar level is below 7, mine was 26.’
A grim prognosis
According to Statistics South Africa, about 7% of the adult population (almost 4 million people) have diabetes, an estimated five million more have pre-diabetes (higher than normal blood sugar levels, but not high enough to be diabetic) and countless others are undiagnosed. After her diagnosis, like so many other people in South Africa, Bridget was sent home with information that warned of ‘amputation’, ‘blindness’, ‘heart disease’ and ‘kidney disease’, which was depressing and neglected to mention that people living with diabetes can live a happy, healthy life.
‘Nowhere in the literature did it say that I could live a perfectly normal life if I looked after myself. I had to discover that for myself and that’s why I am so passionate about Sweet Life, which I co-founded in 2011. If I wasn’t living with diabetes, I wouldn’t have embarked on this mission to raise awareness.
‘If I wasn’t living with diabetes, I wouldn’t have embarked on this mission to raise awareness.’
‘What started as a quarterly print magazine, which we distributed across the country for free, has grown into a thriving online community for people with diabetes. It’s a space for people to connect with others who understand the daily battles of living with diabetes, and to share advice and tips for how to better cope. I am most excited about the fact that it gives people hope for a healthy future.’
Now, Bridget is also a wife and mother of two, and while she loves nature walks, yoga and reading, she is firmly focused on a bigger diabetes awareness message in South Africa.
Speaking up for SA’s diabetics
Bridget speaks passionately about her work, which involves community action, education and advocacy, which, by her own admission, wouldn’t have happened without her diagnosis.
‘In addition to Sweet Life, I’m the co-founder of the Diabetes Alliance, which is a coalition of all the organisations, associations and companies working in diabetes in South Africa. I also helped start SA Diabetes Advocacy, which is the patient voice for diabetes in South Africa – an alliance of all the diabetes patient organisations, all working together so that our voices can be heard.’
‘We do so many fun things too, like this 1-minute video, aimed at raising awareness of Type 2 diabetes, which is our Sweet Life goal this National Diabetes Month. It’s really a bunch of adorable pets playing together, and while you watch them playing, you can count your risk factors off on your fingers.
‘This year, we also developed a very simple Diabetes Food Guide that illustrates which food choices to make, and in what portions. We’re currently sending it around the country to clinics, pharmacies, doctors and support groups, to get feedback for a second iteration which we will submit to the National Department of Health as one of their clinic resources.’
‘In 2021, we hope to start a diabetes education project for children that will share stories about diabetes with kids and young people, and we are planning to develop another illustrated book to build on our four pillars of diabetes education (Take your medication as prescribed. Eat healthy. Exercise a little every day. Lose weight if necessary.)
‘I’d also like to see us roll out podcasts. Time is a constant challenge and, sometimes, there are simply not enough hours in the day, but all the work I do is to help South Africa arrive at a place where diabetes is an easily managed condition, not a lethal disease.’
Group editor: Health, John Brown South Africa