Mea culpa — diabetes is no laughing matter

HOO BOY, did I mess up!

My parents have diabetes. A colleague of mine has to wear an insulin pump. One of my favorite columnists, Jon Carroll at the San Francisco Chronicle, has diabetes.

I've been up on diabetes issues for several years, but I slipped on my soapbox recently, so I'm covered in embarrassing suds.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote in this newspaper about ideas for inventions. Evidently, no one much cared about innovations in hair removal or chameleon white-out. But I did get many letters and comments on this paragraph:

"Some diabetics have to carry insulin pumps. The obesity epidemic in the United States today (source: a local mall from which I beat a hasty, horrified retreat) means that the diabetic-American demographic share is only getting bigger. And we all love our iPods! The answer: combination insulin/song pumps."

Let me just back up and deconstruct my flubs there.

First off, yes, some diabetics have to carry insulin pumps. Mostly, those diabetics have Type I diabetes, where the body basically can't manufacture insulin on its own.

Insulin is one of the body's zillion hormones. In particular, if you don't make insulin, then you can't turn carbs and sugar — food, that is — into energy. So they need to pump insulin into their bodies to live.

You can't just buy an insulin pump at Radio Shack. It's specialized equipment, designed for reliability and foolproof operation. Well, it should be.

My diabetic colleague hates the interface of his pump and wishes someone like Apple would take on the challenge of making smaller, more usable pumps.

When my late mother-in-law had to carry a pump for her IV nutrition, that dang contraption had 20 buttons and the same beep for all of them or for any of several possible errors. The fluid bag and the pump stayed in a backpack or a fanny pack that she always wore.

Just another inconvenience in a long, inconvenient death. But if I think about Frances' illness and death for too long, I get too sad or angry to do anything useful, so I'll move on.

Second: I was way off base to connect the obesity epidemic to insulin pump-carrying diabetics.

You see, obesity is a risk factor for diabetes, but just Type II, the type where your body starts resisting insulin. Not only might your body not make enough, but your cells also stop using it effectively.

Did I mention that Type I diabetes is most often diagnosed in children? And that obesity can cause Type II diabetes, but not Type I, and that the overwhelming majority of diabetics in the United States are Type II?

So you can understand why parents wrote me many unhappy letters about my column. I was conflating their children, who had done nothing to deserve their illness, with people like my parents, who have Type II diabetes.

In my defense, a few parents agreed with me that it would be cool if their kids had integrated insulin pump/jukeboxes. But my jesting blurred an important issue.

Diabetes is a huge problem. I'm not qualified to call it an epidemic, but the American Diabetes Association estimates that 7 percent of all U.S. residents, about 21 million adults and children, have diabetes. And one in six Americans has pre-diabetes (elevated blood sugar levels that signal a problem). One in six is uncomfortably high.

You can't help whether you get Type I, but you can mostly avoid Type II with proper diet and exercise.

I'm at risk, especially because my parents have diabetes and because I'm Indian.

Take it from those who know: it stinks to have to measure your blood sugar level and give yourself shots, so it's worth avoiding if you can.

Do you feel thirsty all the time and find yourself visiting the WC more often than you did a few years ago? Does your vision blur more often than it used to? (Diabetes sometimes causes glaucoma.) How about cuts and sores — are they unusually slow to heal? How about new foot or leg pains?

I know it's a chore to go to the doctor and get a blood glucose test. But hey, I just admitted I was wrong in front of hundreds of thousands of people. And I put off the humor columns for another week for this public service announcement. Humiliating, inconvenient, and even tedious — I have you beat! So go.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at