The resurrection of Leonard Thompson by way of insulin

Vanessa Bolosier
Vanessa Bolosier
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And why insulin isn’t a magic wand that makes diabetes disappear.

Imagine being a 14-year-old Canadian boy. Your name is Leonard Thompson. You’re unwell. 

You received a diagnosis and you heard doctors discreetly tell your parents that the condition you’re living with affords you another year, maybe two. Your hungry teenage body has been put on a strict – if not near-starvation – diet because the same doctors think – or rather hope – the less sugar you have in your blood, the more likely you are to stick around. 

Today, you’re really unwell. The hospital ward they put you in smells of despair, tastes of tears and although you know it’s a myth, you saw a shadow. You’re convinced the great reaper is roaming around and no one can convince you otherwise. There’s no privacy. 40, maybe 50 other people lie in bed around you, ready – or not – for their next chapter. You wonder if you’re ready for yours and wonder what you’d miss out on. Prayers are being made and your frail 65 pounds body just needs strength. 

As dramatic as the rendition of what would have been the cusp of one of the most considerable moments in health sounds – what happened next surely is close to what could be considered a miracle.

The miracle

On 11 January 1922, the life of Leonard Thompson, and that of numerous other children in DKA (diabetes ketoacidosis), at a Toronto hospital was changed forever. Insulin was first used in the treatment of diabetes.

On that day, Banting, Best, and Collip – credited with the discovery of insulin – made their way to a hospital ward full of children. On that day, the belief that one cannot rise from the dead was surely challenged. On that day, one child after the other, injected with the purified extract, woke up from their coma. Try to picture the tears of joy, the laughter, the rosy cheeks on previously livid faces, the embrace of parents towards the child they thought they had lost.

After two rounds of insulin injections, Leonard’s blood sugar levels lowered and he didn’t miss out on as much as he thought he would.

Since then, millions of people living with diabetes have climbed mountains, welcomed grandchildren, travelled the world, run marathons, played football, become actors, dancers, scientists and successful entrepreneurs. 

And somehow the world forgot that, in their bags, is kept a life-saving tool that has helped make their condition slightly more invisible than when their fate was to dwell in deathtraps.

Does solving diabetes matter?

98 years on, given insulin was discovered as a form of treatment for this incurable condition, the general belief seems to be that nothing more needs doing. “Don’t you just have to take insulin?” some say. And when the gravity of the condition hasn’t completely been dismissed by a “but at least it’s not cancer” or disappeared from people’s radar as something “diabetics just have to get good at”, those not in the know will resolve to a blame game, constantly mentioning the weight they burden healthcare economies with, their laziness for not being active enough or worst of all – on a daily basis – their lack of care when eating what they’re “not supposed to”. 

Diabetes isn’t solved. But because people living with it are so damn good at managing it – like by magic – it’s become invisible. An insulin pen isn’t a magic wand, neither is a closed-loop system and the strength required to live your best life when diagnosed with a chronic condition, admittedly might not be the same you would have needed to live beyond the 2-year life sentence you were given before the 1920s. But it nevertheless mustn’t be mistaken with an absence of load and signs it no longer is a problem.

When can we expect a breakthrough?

We have made so much progress. It’s undeniable. Our users tell us. Some of them have lived with the condition back when insulin was administered using a gun. Some, now over 50-years old, still remember being diagnosed as young children, being petrified of ice-cream and lollies because their doctors told them it would kill them. 

Despite the strides we’ve made – far from the Ancient Egyptian records of qualifying diabetes as a condition described as “too great emptying of urine”, or patients’ urine being described as “so sweet and sticky it attracted ants” – until a cure is found, people with diabetes will carry on taking a load off health services. They will do this by looking after themselves day in and day out, ensuring they can achieve as much as anyone else – if not more – often in silence, to avoid facing prejudice or pity. Some will live with their condition out loud, unashamed, shouting about it to raise awareness and help people better understand how unsolved this problem is. 

So no. Diabetes isn’t solved. The condition is not cured. Insulin is not the vaccine and at Quin – and beyond – we must endeavour to use all we have at our disposal to help make further strides in the right direction. The experience of those living with it, the science we have so far, the technology available and the resources we are afforded by those who support us must be harnessed to take another step towards helping to solve it. 

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Vanessa Bolosier
Vanessa Bolosier
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