Dave McGuigan strides into Berryville’s Chet Hobert Park on Saturday afternoon walking the last two miles of a 500-mile journey. At McGuigan’s side was is his walking companion, a black dog aptly named, Onyx. Waiting to meet Dave are his wife Lee, a fifth grade teacher at Boyce Elementary school, and son Macson, a sophomore and three-sport who attends Clarke County High School. Even though McGuigan began the walk as way of marking his 50th birthday, Dave’s journey really started 29 years ago when, as a college student, he received a medical diagnosis that rocked his life and would affect his future and family in ways difficult for a 21-year-old to have imagined.
According to the American Diabetes Association, 23.6 million people in the United States, or roughly 7.8% of the population, have diabetes. Of those with the affliction, about 1.2 million have a form of the disease known as “type 1” diabetes, previously referred to as juvenile diabetes, a condition where the body does not produce insulin.
In 1982, a younger Dave McGuigan had dropped out of college and was working a construction job, but had a plan in place to return to Virginia Tech. Just as McGuigan was preparing to move back to Blacksburg and resume college the first symptoms of what would soon be diagnosed as type-1 diabetes struck without warning.
“It was New Year’s eve and I had been sick with the flu or something,” McGuigan recounted while striding the final two miles of his journey on the park’s jogging trail. “But instead of getting better, my symptoms worsened. My vision became very blurry and I felt like I was looking through a white cloud. I was also having very frequent urinations. I just remember my mother dragging me into the emergency room.”
Dave said that he was fortunate that his mother intervened when she did. Although neither he nor his mother realized it, Dave was exhibiting all of the classic symptoms of diabetes.
McGuigan spent three days in the hospital and was later released with a diagnosis that changed his life.
“The next thing that I knew I was meeting my new roommates at Virginia Tech and explaining why I was carrying urine test strips, insulin syringes and a scale for weighing my food,” McGuigan said.
For many people, being diagnosed with an incurable and progressive disease like type-1 diabetes is too much to bear and can trigger social withdrawal and depression in addition to the disease’s physical symptoms. After all, uncontrolled blood glucose can, over time, damage the body’s tiny and large blood vessels causing blindness, kidney damage and circulation problems. The disease can also lead to a shortened life span.
Rather than surrender to a life dominated by diabetes, Dave McGuigan set his will on turning the table on his unwelcomed disorder. And after 29 years of living with the disease, the fit and active 50-year-old seems to have gained the upper hand through a regimen of regular exercise, a healthy diet and lots of independent reading that has helped him develop strategies for managing the ailment.
Type-1 diabetes is often precipitated by a minor illness that spurs the body to produce white blood cells. For reasons that are not fully understood by researchers, in some people the body’s white, disease fighting cells sometimes mistakenly attack beneficial cells in the pancreas known as “islets”. Pancreatic islets contain the beta cells which produce insulin, a hormone the body requires to convert sugar, starches, and other food into energy needed for daily life. The absence of the insulin producing islets results in the condition known as diabetes.
At age 21, Dave McGuigan’s diagnosis came fairly late as type-1 diabetes typically goes. The disease usually makes its appearance much earlier, generally in pre-adolescent children. But when the disease entered McGuigan’s life a second time, this time through his son, it followed a more predictable path.
When Dave and Lee’s son Macson, now 15, turned four-years-old and suffered a bout with a childhood disease, Lee McGuigan took the child to the family’s physician for a check-up. Lee described the sadness that she felt when she learned that her toddler’s white blood cells were also destroying his natural insulin producing capabilities and that Macson had the same disease as his father.
“I remember taking Macson to the doctor’s office and finding out that he was diabetic,” Lee McGuigan said. “It was life-changing news.”
Although there have been many advances in the treatment of type-1 diabetes, even in just the eleven years since Macson was diagnosed, all three of the McGuigan family attest that living with the disease is still a daily challenge. Even so, the McGuigan’s have chosen to confront the disease head-on rather than ignore it. In fact, the family trio seems to use the disease as a crucible for strengthening its mutual bond of love and support for each other.
“You don’t fully understand how difficult it can be to deal with diabetes until you’ve stood in their shoes,” Lee said. As a mother and wife in a family with two diabetic members, Lee’s support and empathy offer an important source of support for both to her son and husband. Several times during the walk while reflecting on the impact of the disease on himself and his family, Dave McGuigan’s emotion prevents him from speaking. As her husband turns away to collects his thoughts, Lee McGuigan is always ready at just the right time to help finish a sentence that has trailed off into a painful silence.
But while the support and understanding offered by a mother or a wife must surely help ease the emotional pain that accompanies living with diabetes, it is also clear that despite being an unwelcome trait shared by father and son, it also provides a special bond between the younger man and the older man.
“I’m really proud of my dad” Macson said. “Seeing him deal with the disease is really helpful to me because I see how important it is to monitor your sugar level and exercise.” Although the younger McGuigan doesn’t articulate it, he has also inherited his father’s courage and resolve to fight against the genetic hand that he has been dealt.
In fact, the younger man and the older man seem to mirror each other not only in their manner and speech, but in their determination and physical drive to dominate diabetes. As his father demonstrates that a 50-year old man living with diabetes can still walk a distance equal to that between Detroit and Berryville, Macson is also gaining a role model of best management practices for his own blood sugar level challenges. The result of the father-son mutual support is an older man who is able to defer the debilitative aspects of a progressive disease and a younger man able to achieve normal performance excellence in both basketball and cross country running as well as his greatest passion, soccer.
“Macson is doing such a good job monitoring his blood sugar levels and not letting it stop him,” McGuigan said. “It takes a lot to understand where your blood sugar levels are before a game. For instance, if he eats too much and takes the wrong amount of insulin he can’t perform at his best. If your blood sugar is too high it can be very difficult to function.”
Even though advances in insulin pump technology controlled by small computers now help diabetics ensure that exactly the right amount of insulin is injected based on a caloric intake, Dave McGuigan says that there are also downsides to some of the new approaches, especially for people trying to maintain an active lifestyle. For now at least, both he and Macson have opted away from insulin pump technology.
“One drawback is that you’re always attached to a pump and cord that you have to deal with,” McGuigan said. “There’s also a needle that has to be taped in place somewhere on the body which can be a nuisance for an active person.”
McGuigan – who self-administers approximately eight insulin injections every day, one with each meal – said that the daily shots that he needs to maintain optimum blood sugar levels has never bothered him and that Macson has also become comfortable with the regimen.
“Both of us have made the decision to manage the disease through diet and insulin shots,” the elder McGuigan
Asked how he felt as a young athlete saddled with the added challenge of diabetes Macson responds with a confident grin “For me this is just part of life because I don’t ever remember living any other way. A lot worse things could happen”.
Dave McGuigan’s 500 mile journey didn’t begin on the grand scale, as when someone hoping to commemorate an important event decides to walk the entire distance from California to Washington DC all at once. McGuigan’s softspoken demeanor and thoughtful manner probably wouldn’t entertain a grand announcement of such an event even he did decide to tackle it. Instead, McGuigan’s journey began quietly last August as he contemplated what challenge he could set for himself leading up to his 50th birthday on April 16.
“I was reading in a diabetes magazine about a man who decided to drive cross country on Route 50 to celebrate his 50th birthday,” McGuigan laughs. “So I decided to take ’50’ and add a zero to it.”
On one level McGuigan’s 500-mile walk may have been simply a good way to combine a regimented exercise program with an important birthday milestone, the “half-century” mark. Afterall, experts say that exercise is one of the best prescriptions for battling the progressive effect of diabetes. Yet on another level, Dave McGuigan’s “walk-about” is a victorious yell proclaiming to the world that diabetes hasn’t gotten the best of him, even after fifty years, and never will.
“There are difficult days but you learn how to get through them,” McGuigan said. “Life with diabetes is still very live-able and there is nothing to prevent you from having an almost normal life. My experience is that there aren’t many things that you can’t do.”
With his birthday less than a week away, Dave is already considering his next goal.
“I’m thinking about adding another â€˜zero’ on to the â€˜500,’” he said.