Half A Century Not Out - Diabetic Shares Her Story
Date of release: 15 June 2020
A diabetic treated at The Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust who has become a champion for her cause after living with the condition for over half a century has shared her story as part of Diabetes Week.
Heather Clarke, from Perton, near Wolverhampton, was diagnosed with Type 1 at the tender age of six. She turns 61 next month. Incredibly, her younger brother Nigel, now 55, was found to have the identical condition at the same age. She is one of the longest known diabetics in the Wolverhampton area.
Heather Clarke shows off her freestyle libre device
Her story starts back in the Swinging Sixties when her parents took her to see a doctor as she weighed just two stones aged six - losing weight is a classic symptom of diabetes - but their concerns were dismissed. The family had moved from Scarborough to Birmingham and at first Heather was told her weight loss was down to missing her old school friends, then that she had Asian flu. Finally, unable to walk because she was so frail and weak, her father carried her into Birmingham Children’s Hospital where she was immediately diagnosed, spending three and a half months there.
Awareness of the condition has improved immeasurably since then. “In 1965 my parents hadn’t heard of diabetes,” said Heather. “Back then blood glucose tests were in a test tube, with five drops of urine to ten drops of water and a clinitest tablet dropped in to fizz up the test tube. Steel syringes were used to inject insulin. My mother had to boil and use the needle until it was blunt.”
Down the years, Heather has promoted awareness of diabetes. She organised a football match to raise money for the Diabetes Centre at New Cross in June 1994 which was supported by former Wolves player Keith Downing. To celebrate her 60th birthday, in July 2019, she and husband Pete organised a walking football match which raised £890 for Diabetes UK. Pele's Pearls, the Birmingham-based World Cup walking football winners, took part, while Wolves legend John Richards drew the raffle.
Devoted husband of 30 years Pete, who works for family business Peter Clarke Cultivations, a grounds maintenance firm in Wightwick, is Heather’s biggest supporter. “He rings me every lunchtime to check I’m still alive!” she said. “He takes me to all my appointments and I think he knows as much about diabetes as me.”
Heather Clarke shows off the walking football World Cup at the walking football match she organised
Thanks to Heather’s admirable efforts, insulin pumps are now available to diabetics in Wolverhampton. A decade and a half ago there was a debate whether the pumps were beneficial to diabetics. Heather lobbied her then local MP, Labour’s Rob Marris, who had the issue debated in Parliament and eventually the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) agreed to fund them for patients who a panel of consultants decided needed them. She has used her pump for 13 years.
Currently she has a freestyle libre device with a scan sensor that is inserted into her arm. The sensor means she doesn’t have to prick her finger to test for blood glucose and, after a six-month trial, the Trust now funds this for her. Each sensor lasts for two weeks and costs around £70.
Unfortunately, Heather had to take early retirement from work as a reception officer with Wolverhampton Council in 1995 soon after the birth of her daughter Grace, now 25, following complications with her pregnancy. She was warned further pregnancies could be fatal because of her diabetes.
Speaking of how she copes with her condition, Heather admitted: “It’s a constant battle every day but my mantra is to never give up. The libre trial is great – it’s far better than pricking your finger ten times a day.” COVID-19 has been an extra burden. “With Type 1, you’re classed as clinically vulnerable, so we’re supposed to self isolate, but fortunately for the last six years I’ve had food deliveries from Tesco anyway.”
She is also involved with diabetes support group, Perton And District Diabetes Support (PADDS), a group of diabetics who met monthly at Perton Library prior to COVID-19. “Being around younger diabetics has allowed me to talk to them and develop a whole new group of friends,” said Heather.