Doug Burns made a pivotal decision as he entered his teen years; he would not be limited by his health challenges. At age 13, he was inspired by images of Samson in a picture Bible and a fitness athlete in a magazine, and vowed to build strength and power through weightlifting and other fitness endeavours. He had been struggling to manage type 1 diabetes and asthma; he was seriously underweight and constantly bullied for being the smallest boy in his class and “a bag of bones,” as he puts it.
“That Samson picture really pierced me,” he recalls. “I was experiencing hardships every day from being picked on and I told myself, ‘This is the solution I need.’”
Mr. Burns’s determination at a young age helped him take control of his diabetes and paved the way for incredible fitness success in adulthood. He went on to win six power-lifting championships and set state, regional and United States records in that sport. He then shifted his focus to bodybuilding, winning several titles including Mr. USA and Mr. Universe.
Mr. Burns’s stature as Mr. Universe, however, couldn’t prepare or completely protect him from the devastating impacts of a severe and life-changing hypoglycemia attack in 2007.
Hypoglycemia occurs when the blood sugar levels of a person with diabetes drop below their healthy target range. Various factors can cause the condition, including more physical activity than usual, eating less or later than you should, or taking too much medication. Symptoms, such as light-headedness, sweating, nausea, weakness and a sped-up heart rate can hit without warning. If not dealt with immediately, the result can be serious confusion and disorientation, loss of consciousness and, in extreme cases, death.
When Mr. Burns had his serious attack of hypoglycemia, he was in a public place – at a movie theatre – and it came upon him without warning.
“I didn’t know it then, but later learned that people with type 1 diabetes can develop ‘hypoglycemia unawareness.’ When your blood sugar begins to decline, your body releases chemicals, creating physical warning signs that you’re in trouble. But over time, you become less sensitive to these signals.
“I didn’t realize what was happening. Some in the theatre thought I was drunk. The police were called and even though I was wearing a MedicAlert bracelet, they tried to restrain me and a brawl ensued.”
Mr. Burns ended up being sprayed with mace, arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assault.
The publicity about his case led to a stream of support from others with diabetes who had experienced severe hypoglycemia attacks. People came forward to vouch for him and, ultimately, the charges were dropped.
The incident left Mr. Burns with damage to his hand and arm that meant he had to give up competing as an athlete. But ever since, this resident of Northern California has pursued other fitness activities and has built a career as an international consultant and entrepreneur.
And a big part of his life today is speaking at conferences and events for youth with diabetes, to share his experience with hypoglycemia and to call for more recognition and management of this challenging aspect of diabetes.
“I received emails and phone calls from people throughout the world, including from young people who had hypoglycemia attacks in school and everybody thought they were on drugs,” Mr. Burns says. “After learning of my experience and that of friends in the type 1 community, it was great to hear that some of these younger people were now letting others know about their own struggles. They realize they aren’t the only ones.”
Mr. Burns says more awareness is needed about hypoglycemia among the health-care community, patients with type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and their circles of friends and family members.
“Young people in particular may be reluctant to discuss these issues with their health-care professionals, and often, busy physicians don’t have the time to do in-depth interviews with their patients to learn about problems they’re having.
“By talking about these and other events, I’m hoping to underscore the dire need for the health-care profession to consider the seriousness of hypoglycemia within the diabetes community, and to urge people with diabetes to confide in others and seek help when needed.”
This article was sponsored by Novo Nordisk Canada.