August 2010 newsletter: Living feature (part 2)

Diabetics doing it for themselves (part 2)

It took a couple of trips to the US for Niki Smith, who was diagnosed with insulin dependant diabetes in 2000, to come up with her idea. “It was on holiday in 2003 when I had an episode of diabetic ketoacidosis [uncontrollably high blood sugar]. I indeed up in hospital. After that I just noticed things around me while still out in America that I realized were simply not available or even thought of in the UK. In ice-cream parlours there were options for sugar-free ice-cream. But that was nothing next to the sheer amount of stuff available to diabetics in their pharmacies. Not just pills and supplements but all sorts of foods, carry-cases, special socks. All sorts of things.”

Niki now imports supplies from the US selling them from her Diabetic Shop website. “We get masses of orders for food products and hampers at Christmas time, they’re literally flying out the door. Other times we sell a lot of insulin cool bags,” she says.

She thinks it’s a shame that diabetes, which has such rising rates of diagnosis, does not get more coverage, and that it’s very badly represented in TV dramas. “You see shows where someone’s passed out and a passer by says, ‘I know they’re diabetic, they need insulin’, which of course is the last thing they need if they’re actually having a hypo! As a community we need more products, more information and much greater awareness about what we live with.”

That level of passion is certainly something I’ve noticed. And the fact that it’s customer feedback from people who are in the same boat that acts as an incredible spur, hearing all the different stories people have. It’s not always plain sailing. I once took a call from a customer whereby the two of us nearly hung up on each other in high-dudgeon. I thought, ‘I don’t normally react like that’. So I did a blood test and, you’ve guessed it, I was having a hypo. I called the man back and he was sheepish too – seems we’d both got the wrong end of the stick and we ended up having a laugh about our shared experience.

Relying on the relatives

Niki’s husband Bob built her website for her, and her mum helps out with taking orders as Niki herself still has a full-time job. It’s hard work, but “It’s worth the effort,” she says, “I get great feedback from customers and that really keeps me going. They’re so pleased to find a site with such products on it – they say they’re not seen anything else like it, and that they find it really helpful.”

Close relatives might be the ones that get motivated about finding out better information or solving an irritating issue with daily living with the condition. Debbie Pyner, whose husband has Type 1 diabetes, now runs Diet Freedom, a site to help people to manage their weight using insights about the glycaemic index and glycaemic load learnt the hard way by her hubby. In addition has introduced a product called Sweet Freedom, a sort of non-honey honey (my words!). She explains about the latter saying, “It is our view that we all like a little bit of sweetness now and then and we were looking for something that had the least impact on blood sugar levels.  My guinea pig husband who tests four or five times a day says he reports no spikes if he uses Sweet Freedom. In fact, he had to get used to the idea of being able to take a sweet product because of course he has spent many years of avoiding them altogether.”

Dr Bridget Orlop’s son Mark has Type 1 diabetes. A practicing doctor of medicine, Bridget has become a bit of an expert in the field and spent time sourcing a product to help head-off hypos, especially the nasty ones that go bump in the night. Her search has lead her to two products, one of which is a sugar alternative, the other a nutritional low GI shake drink that delivers a long, slow release of energy to help soak up excess insulin. These products are available from

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