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Nurse’s mission to halt advance of a ‘silent assassin’
On two sad but deeply moving occasions in the past, I have written about people facing death from terminal illness.
I did so in the hope that it might leave positive memories behind for loved ones and perhaps encourage others to donate to the many medical research charities seeking cures for dozens of diseases which still afflict mankind.
Well, they say what is good for the goose is good for the gander so now it is my turn. I am ill, although fortunately not severely ill, and if I look after myself properly I should make a ripe old age. If I ignore the warnings, however, I could face a slow and unpleasant death, blind, paralysed with a stroke, or severely disabled with both my legs amputated.
I am not suffering from some awful plague known only to a handful of specialists in tropical medical hospitals, but one of the most common illnesses in Britain – and one that claims tens of thousands of new victims ever year. It is known to its researchers by the scary name of “the silent assassin”.
Most people know it simply as diabetes and thousands of us simply don’t care: everyone knows a diabetic, so the feeling goes, and it is so common it can’t be very dangerous.
This, friends, is very, very wrong – and nursing sister Julia Bundock has spent most of her professional life trying to convince people of the opposite.
“One of the truly worrying things about the present epidemic of diabetes is that there are probably half a million people out there who have the disease without even knowing it,” she told me anxiously at the Dyneley House medical practice in Skipton. “Yet there are symptoms which are fairly easy to spot which should make people consult their doctors.
“It only needs a simple blood test and, if everything is OK, everyone is happy. But if someone has the condition, and it is detected early, it can be treated fairly simply and should not affect a patient’s lifestyle over-much. To ignore it, however, is to risk truly serious conditions and the effects of those can be quite devastating.”
Julie was an Essex lass from a family with no medical background who trained as a State Registered Nurse at the elite Guy’s teaching hospital in London. There she met her doctor husband-to-be, Andy, whose ambition was to become a GP in Yorkshire.
Having finished her basic training, she was asked to specialise as a diabetes nurse at a time, some quarter of a century ago, when the full impact of the “silent assassin” on the nation’s health was only just being grasped. “I was more or less press-ganged into it and it was some months before I realised what an important and interesting branch of medicine it was,” she said.
When Andy got his dream job with the Dyneley practice, Julia came north and worked with Dr David Miles, who was setting up a pioneering diabetic unit at Airedale General Hospital.
They had to raise much of the funding themselves and Julie became the first nurse dedicated to the treatment of diabetes in the area.
Now, with her two children grown up – their son is following the family tradition, studying to be a doctor at Guy’s Hospital – she is the diabetes nurse for both the Skipton GP practices and Cross Hills, and acts as trainer and adviser to GPs and specialist nurses in the Craven and Harrogate area.
And that’s how we first met and, I have to admit, I in a foul mood at being diagnosed with Type II diabetes. I have never been overweight, played squash until I was 50 and swam three times a week after that. My wife and I eat a good diet filled with lots of fruit and veg from our allotment – so why the hell should I get disease associated in the public mind with overweight couch potatoes straight out of a Jamie Oliver nightmare?
I had read the books and scanned the websites and digested the horror tales. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life stuck in a wheelchair paralysed with a stroke. I didn’t want my legs amputated from gangrene because the heart can no longer pump blood to them. I most certainly did not want to go blind.
I was in a pretty churlish mood at that first consultation with Julia. Yet, within minutes, she had me calmed down, explaining that I was unlikely to suffer any of these traumas – so long as I watched my diet, got plenty of exercise and took a couple of pills a day.
Then, and I find this astonishing even now, I found myself laughing. Julia has a sort of Joyce Grenfell charm that puts you at ease even when you should be tense and apprehensive. I see her for the odd check up and most of the time it is pure pleasure, a strange statement from Craven’s grumpiest patient. I would love to call her my very own Florence Nightingale, but she would kill me.
So there’s the good and the bad of it. With Christmas coming up, with its over-eating and often heavy drinking, Sister Julia Bundock has these words of advice, particularly for older people: “There are symptoms that you can spot which might suggest you have diabetes.
“They include extreme tiredness, constant visits to the loo during the night, bleeding gums and blurred eyesight. All these things individually might be shrugged off as merely getting older. But if they all come together, you might have a problem, but one we can nip in the bud after a simple blood test.”
You know it makes sense!