Dr. Michelle Brtek Zwiener is proof that it is possible to lead a normal life with type 1 diabetes.
The Norfolk woman was only 15 months old when she was first screened for the autoimmune disease that affects nearly 1.6 million Americans today.
Her mother took her to the doctor because she ate butter, Zwiener said, although no link was made between her butter eating and diabetes.
However, Zwiener, the daughter of Lou and the late Phyllis Brtek, was not officially diagnosed with diabetes until she was 15.
“I remember strange things,” she said, “as if I’m tired and my back is itchy.”
She also experienced the typical symptoms – hunger, fatigue, frequent urination, and thirst.
“By the time I was diagnosed, it had probably been brewing for a while,” she said. I was admitted to the hospital for seven days to have my blood sugar regulated. I went home with urine tests, a meal plan, and insulin. “
The exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Your immune system – which usually fights harmful bacteria or viruses – is known to attack and destroy your insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means you have little or no insulin. Instead of being transported into your cells, sugar builds up in the bloodstream. Without insulin injections, the disease is fatal, said Zwiener.
Zwiener spent her school years treating her condition by giving herself two insulin shots a day and using glucose monitoring systems that now seem archaic.
“You had to be connected and couldn’t be moved,” she said.
She also learned what foods to eat and which not.
Despite the inconvenience, her illness was not a major problem.
“My family made it normal … part of my life,” she said. “I was always prepared and never stopped doing what I normally would have done.”
When she graduated from high school in 1984, she used an insulin pump to get the required dose of insulin.
After high school, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse and graduated from Mount Marty College in Yankton. There she consulted an endocrinologist who specializes in the treatment of diseases of the thyroid, pancreas and adrenal glands.
She also did two internships on diabetes and knew that one day she would like to make this disease her specialty. In 2004, she earned her Masters in Nursing as a Family Practice Nurse at the Medical Center of the University of Nebraska, and six years later she received her PhD. from the University of South Alabama.
She and her husband Don also had two healthy children, Sara and Brandon, an accomplishment that required her to monitor their condition much more closely than normal.
Zwiener worked in diabetes education at Faith Regional Health Services from 1997 to 2009 and taught at the UNMC College of Nursing in the Northern Division in Norfolk from 2009 to 2013.
In 2009, Zwiener opened the Norfolk Diabetes and Wellness Clinic, which specializes in helping people with or without diabetes lead a healthy life.
“We care about people who are not feeling well,” she said. “We want them to have the knowledge to be successful.”
Treating diabetes is much easier today than it was 40 years ago when Zwiener was first diagnosed.
Today she wears a monitor that monitors her blood sugar levels and delivers insulin when she needs it. The device works with her phone so she can track her condition.
The devices are particularly useful for parents of children with diabetes, as they too can remotely monitor their child’s blood sugar.
Insulin powder can now be inhaled.
“Insulins are much better,” said Zwiener. “People used to react to them a lot.
Better insulin and new technologies are important as the number of people diagnosed with diabetes – both type 1 and type 2 – increases, Zwiener said.
Zwiener is proof that dealing with a chronic illness is not easy, but possible.
“It’s just life,” she said.