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Faces of Diabetes: Suzanne's story

Suzanne Hagen says she would tell anyone diagnosed with diabetes that it is not the end of the world.

WORTHINGTON -- She could get lost in a crowd.

Suzanne Hagen is coming up on her 50-year mark -- the 50th anniversary of the day she was diagnosed with type I diabetes. She's willing to talk candidly in order to educate people about the disease.

"I could get lost in a crowd," she said, arms held out to her sides. "When someone has diabetes, there aren't outward signs that let others know. And people need to be aware of this disease."

Suzanne and her husband, Mark, live in Worthington, and living with diabetes has become not only second nature to her, but to her husband as well.

Diagnosed at age 5, Suzanne's blood sugar was more than 700 when she was tested.

"Normal is 80 to 100," she explained. "I was so sick I really don't remember a lot."

Her mother told her in later years that Suzanne "looked and felt like a wet dishrag."

As a child, Suzanne did normal childhood things -- she went trick or treating, ate in the school cafeteria, attended sleepovers and rode her bike all over town.

She also had to receive or give herself shots twice a day and test her urine to determine her blood sugar levels.

"It was done in a test tube," she explained. "You added five drops of "Things have really come a long way," she said, displaying her meter, syringes and insulin bottles.

Taking care of her diabetes involves pre-planning and forethought, she said.

urine, 10 drops of water and a tablet. You got a range rather than a number."

Diabetics now use meters to test their blood sugar and are given an exact number.

"You really have a better grasp on where you are," Suzanne said.

These days, all of the needles used to administer insulin are disposable, but Suzanne remembers when her mother had to boil syringes and needles so they could be used daily.

"When we travel in the car, I make sure there is always food in there," Suzanne explained. "When I fly, I pack my own food."

She also approaches airport security before a flight to inform them up front she is carrying needles and bottles of insulin.

When her blood sugar gets too high, her tongue begins to get dry, a good forewarning, she said. When it dips low, her behavior changes.

"I'll laugh inappropriately at something on TV, and Mark knows it's low," she explained.

Once, when she was in her early 20s, she was shopping with her mother and went in a changing room with three outfits.

"I came out wearing all three, one over the other, and told my mom, 'I like this one best,'" Suzanne said. "We left the store and went to the clinic."

During Suzanne's first marriage, she and her husband had applied to adopt a child because she had been told because of her diabetes she could not have her own. Before anything could come of the adoption application, her husband died.

After remarrying, her doctors told her she could try having a baby. More diabetic people were having children, she said, and prenatal care was better for everyone.

"It was like being given a Christmas present," Suzanne recalled, "on the best Christmas ever."

After being watched closely by doctors and medical staff, Suzanne gave birth to a healthy baby boy. He was a month early, but ready to be born, she said. Her son Nicholas will be 28 in December.

As she approaches the 50-year mark, Suzanne is healthy, and her eyesight is good. But there have been bumps along the way.

"I lost my driver's license once for six months," she said. "I was driving and knew something wasn't right, so I drove into a ditch on purpose."

Suzanne was later found by a Minnesota State Patrol officer, but has no idea how long she sat in her car in the ditch. She was wearing a diabetic ID bracelet, and the officer called an ambulance as soon as he realized what was happening.

"You have no control over it," Suzanne admitted. "I was helpless. But, I knew enough to get that vehicle off the road."

The loss of her license was tough, but she got it back six months later.

In 1994, she had to have open heart surgery -- a triple bypass -- that was diabetes-related. In November and December of 2007, she went through a procedure called a "natural bypass." It involved treatments that lasted an hour a day, five days a week for seven weeks. Before the natural bypass, Suzanne said she felt like sleeping 18 hours a day, yet never felt rested.

Even with the bumps she has experienced in her life, Suzanne said she would tell anyone diagnosed with diabetes that it is not the end of the world. Treatment has come a long way, artificial sweeteners and sugar-free foods are in every store, and diabetics of today have a lot of choices when it comes to healthy foods.

Still, she said, if she could go without having to give herself shots and not be diabetic for just one year of her life, it would be just like another Christmas present.

"I firmly believe if they would leave that space shuttle down just once and put that money into research instead, wonderful things could be accomplished," Suzanne stated. "If they could only do more gene studies and stop the chain."