Jamie Reed, the Labour MP in Copeland and former shadow health minister, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 36, after initially being misdiagnosed.
Since then, he has run the London Marathon, rejected the opportunity to go on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! and gave a speech at the first-ever Talking About Diabetes (TAD) conference earlier this month.
Jamie sat down with Diabetes.co.uk to discuss the recently announced sugar tax, how he adapted to type 1 diabetes management and why he is determined not to let his diagnosis stand in his way.
Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of a sugar tax was a big take away from the 2016 Budget, and went some way to addressing rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the UK.
Jamie said of the tax: “I welcome it. Type 2 diabetes is such a growing health issue that people can’t ignore it now. It is becoming established in public health policy and is now generally well understood.
“But to an extent, [the tax is] almost piecemeal. There’s a notion that everybody, particularly children, are only getting sugar from fizzy drinks, which is false. I think there’s a need for a broader, wider, more comprehensive approach towards sugar in all our food.”
Alongside government measures, work is also being done by prominent UK healthcare professionals to raise awareness of diabetes. On March 12, Jamie spoke at the TAD conference, which gave people with type 1 diabetes the opportunity to share experiences and improve communication between patients and doctors.
“I think it was a brilliant conference,” Jamie said. “One of the really impressive parts of it was to get people with type 1 diabetes into a room and sharing their experiences. It was calculated that almost 1,000 years of diabetes experience was in the room, and there was a lot of shared learning to be enjoyed.
“But one of the most important things was that it was excellent to communicate and to speak to people about how we deal with issues. I hope this talk is the first of many.”
Jamie developed type 1 diabetes in 2010, but it took a misdiagnosis from a GP and a severe episode of diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) before he was clinically diagnosed.
“It was just a couple of weeks before the 2010 General Election. I’d been working very hard, and trying to get fitter than I was. I was running between 8-15 miles every day, so I was losing weight, and quite tired most days. I then picked up a bug which left me incapacitated.
“After a couple of days I got back up on the campaign trail, and the fatigue just wouldn’t go away. One morning, I drank two litres of Diet Coke, two litres of fizzy Vimto, and some blue sports juice, but I just couldn’t quench my thirst. I had a headache and sickness, so I went home and got some sleep.
“This went on for a few days, and my wife got me a GP appointment. He said ‘you look tired and stressed’. My blood sugar read 14.7 mmol/l, but he said ‘take some paracetemol, go home and go to bed’.
“There was no suggestion of type 1 diabetes at that point. Later that night, I started vomiting and had an incredible headache. My wife called for the on-call doctor, who did a ketone urine test and immediately called for an ambulance. I was in DKA. The next thing I really remember is a few days later when a consultant told me that I had type 1 diabetes.”
“I don’t think diabetes has affected me in a negative way”
After Jamie left hospital, he faced a number of challenges, but felt determined to get on with it and not let diabetes be an obstacle.
“It was a difficult period. I was thrown back into work and representing my constituents, but I was determined to treat diabetes as an ordinary part of my routine. I did worry if people would see me in the same way. To be effective in politics, you have to be able to see yourself as other people see you. But I knew I was still the same person.
“One of the issues with my diagnosis was that, for quite a long time, I was anxious at being described as a ‘diabetic member of parliament’ and someone who talked about diabetes all the time. I did not want to be the ‘go-to’ politician for anything on diabetes.
“But that changed when I met a constituent with a young child with type 1, and it made me think ‘I have things very easy’. I know what to do to manage my diabetes and I know how to do it. And at that point I thought ‘more needs to be said about this’.
“The only concession that’s been made to me in politics is that I’m allowed to eat sweets in the House of Commons if I’m feeling a bit low. But otherwise I don’t think it’s affected my life in a negative way; it’s made me do things I wouldn’t have done prior to the diagnosis.”
Jamie ran the 2014 London Marathon, raising money for the JDRF in the process, and is planning on racing again this year. In preparation for this year’s run, he has found that halving his basal insulin helps him avoid hypos during intensive training.
Jamie’s high-profile occupation means that he is consistently in the public eye. In September, he was approached to appear on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! He declined the offer, insisting his constituents would most likely rather see him perform his elected duties, but part of him considered accepting simply to raise awareness of type 1 diabetes.
“There’s a lot of poorly informed people who think people with type 1 diabetes can’t eat certain things, and this can be a compromising issue. The big issue with type 1 diabetes that I believe needs to be encouraged is for people to have less fear, and a more energetic approach to their management.
“If there can be more communication with the community, which helps people understand the risks of type 1, but also the lack of limitations that it places upon you, then it would be of great benefit.”
Jamie’s son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in November, but he insists that this isn’t something that should ever stop him from achieving what he wants to do.
“If he has good care and good management, his condition isn’t an excuse for anything in his life. He can be whatever he wants to be. We live increasingly complex difficult lives, and for me, type 1 is just another complication. I’m determined for my son that it is seen as something you just have to do. I would hope that that attitude could be adopted by a lot of people.”