FAIRBANKS — Rick Mystrom is a name most long-time Alaskans will recognize. Alaskan surveyor, Anchorage Assemblyman and mayor, and a driving force behind Alaska’s bid to host the 1992 and 1994 Olympic Games. He has lived in Alaska most of his life, and enjoyed all aspects the state offers — an active, outdoor life, family and successful businesses. What people may not know about Mystrom is that he is a Type I diabetic, dependent on regular doses of insulin. But that hasn’t stopped him from global travel or participating in sports or living a full life. He chronicles that life, and how he has managed his diabetes through the years, in “My Wonderful Life with Diabetes.”
Subtitled “An Inspiring and Empowering Story of Living Healthy, Living Active, and Living Well with Diabetes,” this part memoir, part self-help guide contains not just the story of Mystrom’s life (post-diabetes diagnosis), but also how he has managed to remain a healthy, active man despite what is a devastating and potentially fatal condition.
When Mystrom was diagnosed in 1964, diabetes was not well-understood; self-testing and insulin-pump technology had not been invented. A diabetes diagnosis usually meant daily shots, regular blood testing and a curtailed life.
Mystrom was 20 years old in 1964, healthy and athletic, “with all the feelings of invulnerability that came with the confidence and testosterone that coursed through my body,” he writes. Although fit, he was skinny, carrying 175 pounds on a 6-foot, 3-inch frame. “I seemed to be always hungry and getting thinner,” he acknowledges, but didn’t think he was sick. While in summer school at Colorado University, a routine physical and blood test for annual ROTC eligibility revealed the devastating news.
With a blood sugar level of 400 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) – normal is 75 to 105 mg/dl – Mystrom was given a shot of insulin to tide him over the weekend, while a glucose tolerance test scheduled for the next Monday would tell the tale. Given his age and physical condition, the doctor was pretty sure it was Type I (where the body does not produce insulin, as opposed to Type II, in which the body produces insulin, but can’t use it effectively).
On the doctor’s advice, Mystrom spent the weekend in the university library, looking up everything he could find on the disease and coming up with a list of questions the doctor would answer after the test. “It turned out to be an excellent way to introduce me to diabetes,” Mystrom writes.
Before that though, he had to process his feelings. “I decided to take a walk along Boulder Creek and think about what was happening,” he writes. “I cried a little. I was worried, but I don’t recall being really afraid. I walked and struggled with the news for about an hour.”
It took him a while, but he realized he’d forgotten he was supposed to eat something, since he had a huge amount of glucose coursing through his body. By then, he was feeling the effects of low blood sugar, and barely made it to a local diner; only by swigging a cola instead of his usual milk did he manage to stay conscious until his meal arrived.
“Two things are memorable about that incident, Mystrom recounts. “First, I experienced my first low blood sugar, a feeling that I would have to be alert to every day for the rest of my life. Second, when I finished the meal, I actually felt satisfied. I didn’t still feel hungry. Over the past weeks I’d felt hungry even after finishing a big meal.”
The course of his life was now laid out before him — he would have to be ever vigilant, and take extra care of himself if he wanted to beat the odds and live a long, full life.
The first thing he realized was that his attitude was the key to thriving, despite his diabetes. More than eating the right foods, exercising, and staying active, keeping a positive attitude and not letting diabetes be the only thing about him would be the key to living well.
Giving himself insulin shots became just another activity he did every day, “like brushing my teeth in the morning.” He promised himself he wouldn’t whine and complain, because, after all, everybody has something to deal with. He also vowed to keep educating himself, keeping up with the studies and technology. And he took to heart the maxim that he, the patient, controlled his destiny, rather than leaving it to the doctor to fix him.
In those days, a diagnosis of Type I diabetes generally meant a shorter life span. And even though his regular insulin shots made him healthier – he gained 15 pounds in three months – the prognosis seemed grim. But he vowed to do more in his short time than most others did with their extended lives. “My inference from this distant retrospective is that working hard to compensate for an anticipated shorter life was part of my thought processes.”
He also vowed he wouldn’t take it easy when it came to physical activity. Of course, by trial and error, he learned to carry snacks, keep track of how he felt, and, far harder for him, ask for help when things got bad.
As a memoir, this is a first-rate read. Mystrom kept his vow to be positive and upbeat, and he only let his diabetes control his activities once. But his story is more powerful than smarmy. He’s had some close calls with low blood sugar that led to confused wandering and unconsciousness (and he’s not above chiding himself for stupidity — “All my serious low blood sugar episodes were caused by mistakes I made. All were avoidable ... ), and a frightening incident with boiling water that could have cost him his legs. That he kept them is a testament to his dedication to eating right, staying active and understanding his condition.
As a self-help guide, there are myriad suggestions and counsels for those who struggle with diabetes. A companion book, “The New Diabetic Lifestyle,” offers diabetics “a clear path” to a long, healthy life despite Type I diabetes.
In his 70s now, Mystrom is still strong, healthy, and active, with a loving family and joy in life that is enviable. He embraces his condition; he finishes at the end of the book, calling himself “truly blessed.”
“I’m convinced ... I would not be as healthy or as fit as I am had I not contracted diabetes.” Mock him if you will, indulge in your skepticism, but 50 years after what was once an early death sentence, who are we to say he is wrong?
“My Wonderful Life with Diabetes”
by Rick Mystrom
2013 • $25
Libbie Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. She can be reached at email@example.com.