The Bracelet

One woman’s story of a long struggle with diabetes leads to a frightening emergency room visit and then vibrant success all while doing battle with the great recession.

by Elizabeth Kalmus

“Elizabeth Kalmus. Type I Diabetic.”

This is what the silver bracelet I wear identifies me as. Such a simple label, and yet it doesn’t begin to describe the ways living as a diabetic has affected every aspect of my life.

Elizabeth Kalmus wearing her silver bracelet

The bracelet never leaves my wrist, just as diabetes will never leave me.

At the age of 5 I was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes.  I might as well have been diagnosed  since I was born, because I don’t remember life without diabetes. That day I was diagnosed I remember watching the doctor inject my mom with saline to show me getting the injections was going to be alright. Afterwards, my dad took me out of the room while my mom sat with the doctor and cried, overwhelmed with the weight of knowing what this would mean for me and how it would affect my entire life.

She was right; my life has been a roller coaster of health problems and never-ending doctors’ visits. It wasn’t until 20 years later that finally I gained some relief.

When I graduated from high school in 2004, I enrolled in my local community college part time. My family and I were unaware that being a part time student made me ineligible for my parent’s healthcare. As a diabetic, I need to be on health care to afford insulin. I had no choice but to drop out of college to look for full time employment to get my health insurance back. For the next three years I went from job to job—from insurance to insurance. Working for health insurance was my only motivation.

When I turned 22, finding a job that could offer me medical benefits was impossible. The economy had tanked, I had no degree and I lived in California where unemployment rates had skyrocketed. For the next three years I held eight jobs, was employed through temp agencies and hired in minimum wage positions.

The fact that I could not purchase private health insurance without being denied, along with the lack of government aid to pay my medical bills, caused me to be without proper medication for three years. I was working to make money to buy my medications, but the medicine I was able to afford wasn’t the most effective. In fact, today doctors don’t prescribe the medicine I was using anymore.

I was physically deteriorating. My friends and family, especially, were telling me how sickly I looked; my skin tone was paler, I had bags under my eyes, my fingernails were frail, hair was falling out easily, my immune system was weak and my muscles had started to dissipate. Physical exhaustion was overcoming me. The added stress of depending on my small income to maintain what little health I did have was all I could do to keep from giving up.

Dismal employment prospects in California led me to moving to the east side of the country in July 2010. Arlington, VA had better employment rates and more overall opportunities then other areas of the country. As hopeful as I was for a new beginning, the physical strain that my body had endured for the past 6 years was too much to handle, and it finally started to give out.

It had gotten to the point where diabetes had won.

August 27, 2010, was when I went to the hospital. My roommate’s mom found me in the basement of her house when I was calling out for help. When she saw me she said I looked ashen—like the life had been sucked out of me. Once I was enrolled in the hospital, my doctors told me they were surprised I was alive. If I had been found a few hours later, I probably wouldn’t have survived.

I went into diabetic ketoacidosis. My blood glucose levels had gotten so high and had been high for so long that my major organ systems began failing. My kidneys, liver and pancreas shut down. Basically, my body was poisoning itself.

I was put into ICU overnight at the Virginia Hospital Center. By morning the next day the doctors displayed shock as to how quickly my body bounced back. I attribute it to my mom

Elizabeth Kalmus during her time recovering in the Virginia Hospital Center

taking care of my diabetes so well while I was young. Through some sort of miracle, that same evening I was discharged from the hospital.

The Virginia Hospital Center enrolled me in the Arlington Free Clinic’s program to aid in the repair my body needed. With immediate entry into the free clinic, I was given the proper care and medications to successfully bring myself back to a healthy state. After years of unstable health care and endless stress about paying medical bills, it was a relief to finally receive the attention my body needed.

By October, I had been in the Arlington Free Clinic program for a month and was a considerably different person. My health was improving every day and I was taking all the correct medication. That same month I gained full-time employment which included amazing health benefits. By November 1st, I was officially enrolled in one of the best private healthcare programs in the area. After years of struggle, things were finally looking up.

Upon acquiring health insurance, I began to speak with my doctor about getting an insulin pump, which essentially works as an artificial pancreas. Instead of needing to check my blood sugar levels and give shots manually as needed, the pump regulates and maintains correct levels on a constant basis. My doctor explained that the insulin pump would only work for me if my health was in a continuous state of improvement and if I learned how to properly calculate and apply the fundamentals of my specific dietary needs. In addition, I had to attend classes led by the Diabetes Self-Management Program offered through the Virginia Hospital Center that would help prepare me.

I had my first class with Amy Wyatt and Dee Brown, the educators of the program, in March of 2011.  Immediately I started benefiting from the classes and their unique approach to coaching those suffering from both types of diabetes. I grew to trust the

Elizabeth with Amy Wyatt, a Certified Diabetes Educator with the Virginia Hospital Center's Diabetes Self-Management Program

individuals and the program while they helped me gain all the knowledge I needed to start a new part of my life—one where I could work with my diabetes via the insulin pump instead of fighting against it day after day.

In May 2011, I was hooked up to the insulin pump for the first time.  Throughout the first month I gradually adjusted to life with an artificial pancreas. When June rolled around I was using the pump as it was fully intended, bringing my health back to what it was when I was a young child. I had never felt better and I realized for the first time how sick I had truly been for the past six years of my life.

My amazing recovery and rejuvenating health is directly attributed to the personal dedication of those at the Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington Free Clinic, and especially Amy Wyatt and Dee Brown at the Diabetes Self-Management Program. I can only be thankful that the new health care regulations will make health care more attainable for diabetics, and hopeful that continued help from medical institutions like the Diabetes Self-Management Program will improve the lives of diabetics so no one has to experience the stress and deterioration of their body like I did.

It is thanks to the groups and individuals that treated me, educated me and provided me with health care that I am in the best health I’ve been in for years. They gave me my life back. So now, every time I look at my silver bracelet that says “Elizabeth Kalmus. Type I Diabetic” I think of all those who gave me a way to live with my diagnosis, and live it without struggle.

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