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A POSITIVE PERSON: PAULINE LIPSITZ

From the Editor: Pauline Lipsitz is a positive person. Surviving 82 years with type 1 diabetes is a tremendous accomplishment; and Pauline, who as a child helped Dr. Elliot Joslin demonstrate insulin injection techniques, has always been positive. Maybe that's why she's done so well?

I interviewed her in May 2005. Helped by her daughter, Robin Lichterman, Pauline took us all the way from the very beginning of insulin therapy in the United States, up to the present. She is positive indeed--see for yourself.

I was born on January 16, 1919, but they didn’t discover my diabetes until 1923. I had been not that well as a kid. I was all right, walking around and stuff, and playing, but they could see I had a problem.

I was always very hungry, and of course I drank so much water, I couldn’t go anywhere without a whole jug of it with me. If my father was just going to the store he’d say: "wanna take a ride with me?" but I had to bring a jug of water. I never forgot how thirsty I was then. I haven’t had anything like it since, but I’ll tell you, I used to be so thirsty. I was full of sugar, and didn’t know it.

I became very sick, and no one knew what to do with me. The doctors didn't know what was wrong. Finally, I went to the Deaconess Hospital and they sent me to Dr. Joslin, Dr. Elliot Joslin. That's when it came out--diabetes. I was four years old. I've had it for 82 years; I'm 86.

I started insulin in 1923. Dr. Joslin was absolutely marvelous; I’ve never seen a doctor since then who compares. He just was wonderful, and he just did diabetic work.

We lived in Boston, so my mother and father took me to him, and he put my mother and me in the hospital until she learned how to test, and give my insulin, and about diets, and the whole business. We stayed in the hospital for a couple of weeks, then went back home, and my mother was always good about the diet. I always was well; of course it was a struggle, but I managed.

I don’t remember what kind of insulin it was, because I was four years old, so I don’t remember too much, but I’ve always been on insulin since then. I'm taking NPH now; 18 units a day.

I went to school, and I didn’t miss any school. I wasn’t ill; I was in good hands. Then Dr. White came along, after I was with Dr. Joslin a while. Dr. Priscilla White, a very bright lady, took over as the pediatrician, there at Deaconess with Dr. Joslin.

Daughter Robin Lichterman recounts: "If my mom's mother called the doctors to say that Pauline wasn't quite right, Dr. White would come over in her convertible coupe, and pick Mom up and take her to the hospital or their office to check her out. That was when Mom was about 12 years old. Dr. White's mother was always with her, in the front seat, and Mom would slide in between them, and off they'd go. She remembers vividly riding with them in the car on those occasions, and described Dr. White's mother as very nice with her, and always seemed very happy just to be able to spend time with her daughter, who was probably so busy she rarely had the chance to see her. Imagine that kind of service today!"

Well, of course, I was in Boston, which was the right place. Deaconess Hospital had a whole place where they had nothing but children with diabetes, and we were taught how to weigh our food, and how to give ourselves insulin. We were all little kids; but we all knew how to give insulin and how to measure it, and how to be careful, and all the other stuff. We learned how to be independent, so we could go home and go to school and all, but you had to know how to give insulin and how to weigh your food.

In those days you weighed all your food. If your meal plan had 10 grams of potato, you didn’t just guess and take a hunk of potato. You took a hunk, put it on the scale, and if it weighed 12 instead of 10, then you had to take a little piece off and that’s what we did. We were all careful, and that’s why we lived to tell the story.

I had a food scale at home; though, after a few years, I could say, “I know what 50 grams is for a potato. I don’t need a scale,” but I was brought up with a scale, of course. I used my chart; I'd have a measured amount of some vegetables that were 5% carbohydrate, like collard greens, and then I'd have so many grams of the 10% veggies, like green beans. When you get up to 15 to 20%, that's the potatoes, and then you get into the starchy stuff.

When I got a bit older (I was a big girl, in my teens), I said: "I don’t need to weigh all my stuff! I know very well how much--just a hunk of this and a piece of that." So I put the scale away, but my mother kept using the scale all the years I was at home, until I got to be in my early twenties. I finally said: "You know what, mom, I think we can put away the scale. I think we can get the potatoes and the string beans right." She put it away then, but she was still very careful.

He had lectures all the time, Dr. Joslin, there at Deaconess hospital in Boston. I practically lived there; they kept me there a lot, and they kept me going, and I was a healthy little girl. I went to all the lectures, and demonstrated to other children, if they were there, how to give insulin. I gave insulin when I was five, six years old. I had to show them how easy it was to fix the syringe, and that it wasn’t painful to put it in your leg, so I did that.

Dr. Joslin’s clinic was wonderful; that’s what kept me alive and well, and I had no problems really. I didn’t miss school. I always felt good; but of course I was always careful of my diet and all. So everything worked out fine. I’m 86 years old, I feel great; but of course I lost my sight from diabetic retinopathy. Other than that, I’ve been very healthy, and I didn’t miss any school or anything. And, I went on to have two kids, Robin and Mark.

I remember the Bunsen burner we used for urine sugar tests. There were those colors. Blue meant perfect, no sugar; and then a little off blue, a teal green was a little sugar; and when it got really green, there was quite a bit; ohhh, but God forbid if that’s turning brown; oh, wait a minute; it was a little orange in the brown! That means, boy you gotta watch it! And I remember testing my specimen, with the urine and the little test tube. Five minutes and then you look at the color. And you gasp if it’s red; You say "oh, my God..."

That’s all they had in those days when I was a kid. No test strip; you had about an inch of Benedict solution and eight drops of your urine. And I did have some hypos; you just sort of fade away.

Now I have helpers here every day, who test my blood about six times a day, so we know what the numbers are. They know what to give me to bring it up, or to bring it down if it’s too high. They monitor me all the time now. That’s just to prevent the reactions I started to have too regularly. We were a little bit more worried, so the girls make sure it doesn’t get too low any more.

If I could say anything to all you readers, I'd tell you to just take care of yourself, go to your doctor, have your sugar tested, take your insulin or whatever, faithfully, and then you can live just as normally as anyone, and feel just as well. I always felt great, all the way through school and all. I was able to play and have fun, but of course I was careful.

As a child, I had to be careful what I ate, and I always was. When I went to anybody’s home, and they’d bring out the cookies and all, I never cheated, and that’s how I always kept my sugar down.

Even then, careful as I was, eventually I became blind, so it just shows you do have to be careful. But other than that I always felt well. To this day I feel great; It isn’t like you’re being cheated out of a life time. I had a good life, I had a couple of kids, and I got a good husband, a good life. I feel fine, I feel great.

Pauline's daughter, Robin Lichterman, reports that when her mother felt changes in her eyes, she devised a way to check her eyesight every day. There was a picture window in the apartment she and Robin's father lived in (in Washington, DC, at that time), and she'd stand in front of the window and read a sign across the street. At first, she could see the sign clearly; later it was a blur; then eventually she could no longer make out the words.

One evening in 1945 (Robin reports), Pauline was waiting for the streetcar, when her retinas detached. Robin remembers how, in 1954, Pauline went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, for surgery on her eyes, but it failed. "She was there for weeks, and came home disappointed, says Robin, "but got back to taking care of me and the house, and two years later, my brother was born."

I used to work on the phone with people my doctor, Dr. Rice, from Washington, DC, gave me; names of people who were so discouraged, you know, because they had diabetes, had lost their sight, and all; they were trying to keep them from trying to kill themselves or something.

I'd tell them how I clean my own house, I cook my meals every day, so you can do it, too. There was one woman who was literally suicidal, and I talked to her. That woman came out of it; she turned into a real Martha Stewart, it was amazing what she could do. She used to sew her own draperies for her home. Yeah, that was an interesting period.

I did this for years. I would work for my doctor by talking to people who were discouraged. They were losing their sight, so I’d call them. Seeing isn’t the biggest thing in the world; it’s very handy, but you can live, and you can do things as long as you feel pretty well you gotta be thankful. And that’s what I did for years.

I followed my own advice. I always felt good. I have two children, and I have a kitty, and I have a nice husband. I have plenty to be thankful for.

Herb is my husband, and the kitty’s name is very hard to remember. It’s "Kitty," actually "Mr. Kitty," if you want to be formal. I’m an animal person; I just love animals.

Herb is a retired lawyer; he was with the National Labor Relations Board for about 45 years. That’s what he did. He went to Boston University, and he didn’t have diabetes, but his story is pretty inspiring too. From the age of 12, he sold newspapers on a street corner in Boston, and he put himself through law school selling newspapers.

I hope there are more people like me, because it’s novel to feel well and get up every morning and feel good, and I do. I’ve always been healthy. I don’t even have a cold. I'm just very healthy, other than diabetes.

"You have to be a positive person to begin with," says Robin Lichterman. "My mother has always had an incredible attitude. She’s very positive about things like that, and the only thing that really ever got her down was after she broke her hip. But before that, she had accidents. She broke her leg, she broke her shoulder, she broke her wrist. She’s had all kinds of accidents, but you’d never know it. She made Thanksgiving dinner one night after she'd fallen down a full flight of cement stairs that the morning. She got up, was embarrassed because her hose got torn, came home, and fixed Thanksgiving dinner. We ate a big dinner, and as soon as we finished cleaning up she said to my dad, 'Well I guess you’d better take me to the hospital, because I think I broke my arm.' And she had, but she fixed dinner with it. She is amazing."

Editor's Postscript:

On August 9, 2005, just weeks after our interview, Mrs. Pauline Lipsitz died. She was a very giving, caring person, who, all her life, used herself, and her own circumstances, to educate others about diabetes. All her life, Mrs. Lipsitz served as a positive example, helping other diabetics to continue living productive lives.

I am saddened she has left us, but honored to have known Mrs. Lipsitz, however briefly. I know she is in a better world.

Ed Bryant