Patti Copeland paused for a split-second, as if the realization momentarily caught in her throat.
“I had no idea I could get an award, and it’s neat to get it. Fifty years as a diabetic – frankly, I didn’t know I’d make it 50 years,” Copeland joked after receiving Lily’s Journey in Diabetes award, a unique accomplishment that is presented to a select few nationwide. “It was an awesome moment. I’ve used Lily’s products for 50 years, and they’ve been great for me.”
To anyone who knows her, Copeland’s “50 years,” quip is obviously funny because of how seriously she takes her health, and how seriously she takes the management of her Type I diabetes.
And it is exactly why Longstreet Clinic Diabetes Education Program Director Cheryl Williams, RN, CDCES, nominated Copeland for the award.
“Ever since I’ve known her, she done an amazing job,” Williams said. “Patti follows her diet well; she monitors her glucose levels closely; she keeps her appointments. If she didn’t do that, she would have many more problems.”
Indeed, the fact that Patti, 59, has lived half a century of mostly worry-free years while dealing with Type I diabetes is a testament to how hard she works in maintaining safe blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Patient diligence proves key
“Ninety-five percent of blood sugar control is up to the patient, and Patti keeps in control of that,” Williams said. “There’s no quick fix for a Type I diabetic. Their body will never make insulin [which helps regulate blood sugar levels], so they have to make a commitment to stay healthy, and it is not easy to stay on top of everything all the time. There’s a lot involved in diabetes care that they have to do, and we’re just the back-ups. Patti’s knowledge and diligence is what helps her stay healthy.”
Maintaining safe levels is a constant task for both Type I and Type II diabetics, as without proper levels of insulin, sugar that would normally be ingested at the body’s cellular level instead stays in the bloodstream, which can lead to a number of risks, including nausea and vomiting, dry mouth, weakness and even coma in the short term, while continued high blood sugar levels may lead to cardiovascular disease, nerve damage, kidney damage and bone and joint problems, among many other poor outcomes.
Copeland acknowledges her own attentiveness – for instance, she pays close attention to exactly what she eats, how much and when – makes a difference, but she also puts her continued good health down to a number of other aspects, including a support of Longstreet Clinic’s Diabetic Education team.
“Cheryl makes a big difference in the lives of people with diabetes; she takes care of us all,” Copeland said. “And I know it can be frustrating, because some of us don’t take care of ourselves and do what we’re supposed to do. But she still does so much for everyone.”
Williams has worked hand-in-hand with Copeland since coming to work for Longstreet Clinic in 1998 and has been impressed from the moment they met, guiding Copeland through progressions in diabetes care and technology – even if Copeland was resistant to one particular development: an insulin pump. The small, computerized device delivers incremental doses of short-acting insulin continuously via a thin catheter placed into the skin near the stomach. An insulin pump can also deliver larger, immediate doses when necessary, for instance when a meal is eaten.
“I fought Cheryl on the pump for a while, but I’ve had it now for 10-15 years, and it’s made things so much easier. The beauty of the pump is that I can do what I need to do, get on with my life and not have to worry as much about having to eat at a specific time,” said Copeland, who was taking four insulin shots a day prior to adopting the pump. “I also have a constant glucose monitor in my arm that goes off and tells me if I’m going high or low.”
A lifelong journey
For someone who grew up with diabetes care from the 1970s, it is blessing, as she spent her youth learning how to control her condition in very different circumstances. In fact, after being diagnosed with Type I diabetes on Jan. 22, 1971 (her father’s birthday) by her family physician in Dahlonega – which was then confirmed in Gainesville at what is now Northeast Georgia Medical Center – Copeland learned how to live on one shot of insulin a day.
“My mom (Jessie Couch) did a lot of the work; she measured my meals out, and she gave me most of my insulin shots. My dad (Arnold Copeland) gave me a few, but my mom was usually the one doing it, and she got really good at it. She set the template for my success,” Copeland said.
It was that primary approach to diabetes that allowed Copeland to remain relatively unfazed by the condition – even after she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Nathaniel, in 1991, and then a daughter, Brooke, in 1995, who were both completely healthy.
It was far from easy for Copeland, however, and she even spent two days in the ICU following Nathaniel’s birth in order to deal with both her blood sugar levels and the pre-eclampsia she suffered. Like every step of her diabetes journey, Copeland regained control, as her husband Gary provided critical emotional support – a journey they have maintained for 36 years together.
“For whatever reason, I haven’t had a lot of the complications associated with diabetes. I hope it’s because I try and take care of myself, but I’m very thankful regardless,” Copeland said. “A lot has changed for diabetics, and it’s for the better. I know I’ll have blood sugar highs and lows, it’s just the reality of being a diabetic. But it’s how you take care of those highs and lows that makes the difference in your care.
“It’s important to keep all of your appointments and take care of yourself. People are sometimes scared to go see the doctor if they’ve been having a bad time and show their high blood sugar levels. But that’s when you need to go so that they can help you figure out why that’s happening and take better care of you.”
It is an approach that has worked brilliantly for Copeland for 50 years. And she’s nowhere close to slowing down.
A longtime member of Longstreet’s diabetes education committee, Copeland says she will continue to stay on top of her blood sugar levels and live her best life.
“I think it’s great to have this award,” Copeland said. “I’m just going to continue to stay on top of things, like I always do, and see where life takes me.”