This I Believe

Saleem - Essex Junction, Vermont
Entered on January 2, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50

INSPIRED BY INSULIN

I believe in science and research that is faithful to human survival.

At the tender age of five our son, Shahmir, was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes. His symptoms of excessive thirst during the winter months had mentally prepared me for the worst news to come from the doctor. My wife and I were caught in a torrent of emotional turmoil as we were told how Shahmir’s life was to be dependent on a delicate balance of one indispensable molecule — insulin. This essential chemical, which is naturally secreted by the pancreas, was no longer being produced in Shahmir’s body.

Our sentiments swayed from denial, to anger to guilt to grief and finally acceptance of our predicament. The doctors assured us that there was nothing we could have done to prevent this illness since the complex confluence of genetic and environmental factors that cause Type-1 diabetes are very different from those that lead to the far more common and diet-related Type-2 diabetes. After the initial months of grief had abated, we reconfigured our lives and returned to a tenuous sense of normalcy.

As an academic, my coping strategy for this situation was to find out as much as I could about diabetes and most importantly about insulin. The Nobel Prize-winning discovery of this molecule in 1922 by Canadian researchers Frederick Banting, Charles Best and John Macleod is ranked among the most important medical achievements of all times.

These researchers were willing to persevere, even though many before them had given up. Their allegiance to scientific methods as well as their willingness to collaborate with industry made it possible to mass produce insulin within a year of its discovery. Long before the era of email networks or international organisations such as the United Nations, professionals from various fields united to work on an effective standardisation of insulin and make it available globally at an affordable cost.

It is through such efforts of uniting in our common humanity that diabetics worldwide can now live relatively functional lives and contribute to human achievement. In 2006, William Cross, became the first Type-1 diabetic to summit Mount Everest — perhaps the ultimate test of human physical accomplishment. Such inspirational stories give us hope that Shahmir will also have a fulfilled life. Almost three years have passed since his diagnosis and he is doing very well in school and continues to enjoy most of the pleasures of childhood.

Belief in the power of science and human perseverance to harness the mysteries of nature became so intimately important to us. If Shahmir had lived a hundred years before, his maximium life expectancy after diagnosis would have been six months. Insulin, and the efforts of those who made it available have given him a chance at a relatively normal life. Global efforts to make life-saving medicines and treatments available to all those who need them must certainly continue. Science and human resilience have triumphed so far. Everyday we are reminded by his smile that the gift of life must never be taken for granted.