Thursday, 16 August 2007

Sympathy absent in diabetes death

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A United Kingdom woman's death by diabetes made the news recently. But empathy had no place in the story. Instead, she was recorded as having died of natural causes, yet also convicted of her own murder.

The point of the story, which was reported nearly six months after she was found dead in her home, appears to be the fact that her boyfriend was found not to be responsible for her death. The death was originally ruled suspicious because the 41-year-old woman who lived alone was found partially disrobed in her home. Turns out, the boyfriend didn't kill her, but saw her dead through a window and decided to rob her. That's not all he did. He paved the way for her to be publicly ridiculed for struggling with a chronic illness and ultimately dying from it.

A coroner's examination "revealed that due to diabetes and a lack of its treatment, she had a chemical imbalance in her blood" and that she "failed to co-operate with doctors who advised her about how to control the condition" and then died "after she let her diabetes get out of control." The coroner recorded that the woman died of diabetic ketoacidosis, apparently considered a "natural cause."

I guess that proves the boyfriend's innocence. But I'm not sure what's natural about ketoacidosis or diabetes. Why wasn't dying of diabetic complications enough to get the guy off? Did the report have to go so far as to convict the dead woman?

I find society, people with diabetes included, quick to skewer those who suffer from a self-managed disease. I hear stories all the time:

"He had his leg amputated. He's diabetic, but he didn't take care of himself."

"She had a 9-pound baby. She's diabetic and I heard she ate ice cream when she was pregnant."

Where is the empathy?

Diabetes wasn't the only disease the dead woman suffered from, either. She reportedly had a history of addiction as well. Of course, the nature of both diseases requires intense self-management and the sufferer must take responsibility for their own care. But that's beside the point. If the story is true, this woman had lived with diabetes for 33 years. Clearly she was controlling her disease enough to stay alive for quite a while. Yet, being admitted to hospital four times in the months leading up to her death and having a slime ball boyfriend rob her afterward means she gets a big fat guilty stamp on her forehead?

Perhaps treating death by diabetes as the fault of the sufferer makes the accuser feel comfortably detached from the randomness of sickness and death and closer to the idea that we control our own destiny and can prevent dying. But death is death. And disease is disease. Anyone capable of living with diabetes for more than 30 years should be honored for bearing a burden that is the ultimate culprit cutting too many lives short. And, so, I am doing that here for Isobel Ackerley.

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