Date: 14 November 2017
An Oxfordshire man who has diabetes and lost his sister and mother to the condition has urged people to take part in NHS research.
Speaking ahead of World Diabetes Day (14 November), Nigel Hawkins said he has changed his lifestyle after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
The 56-year-old from Witney was diagnosed in July 2001 after a holiday in the Cotswolds with wife, Linda, with whom he has two children.
He said: “I had become unwell during the last day of our holiday. I was forever thirsty and drinking huge volumes of water to attempt to quench my thirst, urinating a lot and my wife said, ‘you’d better get yourself to the doctor’s’.
“On the way home, I had to get my wife to drive because my vision was going. It was really blurred; a bit like when you open your eyes under water.
“I went straight to the doctor and sure enough, he did my blood sugar levels and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re still compos mentis, your levels are 33.4 [millimoles per litre]’. He was surprised I was still able to talk to him in a normal way.”
In people without diabetes, the average blood sugar level is below 7.8 millimoles per litre.
Type 2 diabetes is a lifelong condition where where the body does not respond to insulin, a hormone which regulates blood sugar levels, resulting in them becoming too high. Some people require more insulin as the body's pancreas gradually fails to produce enough. High blood sugar levels can lead to kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Mr Hawkins said: “When I was admitted to hospital via the A and E route I was told I was diabetic and the consultant said I’d now had 10 years wiped off my life expectancy. It scared the living daylights out of me.”
“It was quite a shock really because even though I have a family history of diabetes, you always think ‘it’s not going to happen to me, I’m made of stronger stuff’, but that’s not the case.”
Mr Hawkins’ half-brother, Malcolm Searley, 61, and older half-sister, Sally Stratford, 68, also have type 2 diabetes.
His mother, Ivy Hawkins, died in February 1998, aged 68, from complications related to the condition.
Mr Hawkins said: “My mother became diabetic during childbirth when she was about 19 or 20 and in those days it was quite hard to work out what brought this condition on.
“She died because of diabetic complications. Both of her feet were gangrenous, and she was going to have them amputated, but the night before her operation she passed away.”
His younger half-sister, Marion Searley, also died from not taking her diabetes medication in March 2013, aged 62.
Mr Hawkins said: “My sister had a history of mental health issues and we believe that’s why she was self-withdrawing the tablets she had to take for her diabetes.
“She was admitted to Southampton General Hospital for a month, trying to get her stable again and she still wasn’t taking her tablets. The nurse would give them to her and she would just later spit them out. Because of her mental illness, she thought the tablets were making her ill.
“It was awful. I was at work when I got the sad news that she passed away in hospital.”
Mr Hawkins donated blood samples as part of a University of Oxford study in November 2016 to help further researchers’ understanding of Type 2 diabetes.
The aim of the Oxford Biobank study is to gain a better understanding of why factors such as diet, smoking, obesity and lack of exercise contribute to some people developing diabetes while others do not. This gives researchers a better understanding of the disease and how to prevent it.
The Oxford Biobank study - which is recruiting participants until September 2018 - is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) (for a full description of the NIHR see notes to editors).
Patients with Type 2 diabetes registered with a GP in Oxfordshire are asked to participate.
Participants are asked to fill out a questionnaire on their health before visiting the Churchill Hospital’s Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism (OCDEM).
There they have their blood pressure, height, weight and body fat assessed and provide a 50ml blood sample. The data and blood samples are then stored for further research studies.
Mr Hawkins said: “I have regular check-ups at my local GP practice and the diabetic nurse there said ‘we’ve got a study group that’s looking for patients’, and I thought ‘perfect, I’d like to help out’ and since I am semi-retired I have both the time and passion to use that to help out with any research into diabetes.
“After that, I told the research team to let me know of anything else coming up and that’s when, in 2016, I was invited to go along to the biobank study.”
In April 2016, Mr Hawkins retired from his health and safety advisor job of 20 years at the Home Retail Group based in Milton Keynes and is now working part time as a team leader for the Co-Operative Food Centrum Square store in Carterton.
He said: “After being diagnosed I reviewed what I was doing earlier: going for McDonald’s for lunch, and sometimes on the way home from work if I was caught in traffic and eating meals late at night when I got in. This lifestyle wasn’t helping the diabetes.
“When you learn about exercise you think ‘what can I do?’. I can’t swim that well, so I thought ‘I’ll get a dog’. I take our labrador, Lucy, for up to an hour walk every day and that forces me to go out and exercise a lot more each and every day. It makes a real positive difference to my general wellbeing and blood sugar readings. It is also something I really enjoy in all weather conditions.
“My wife and I both attended a diabetes education day, learning all about living with type 2 diabetes and the importance of eating the right balance of different food stuffs. I still eat normally, but I do have regular meal times that I must stick to, rather than eating snacks very late at night.
“My wife and I make sure I have the right amount of carbs and watch out for the higher sugar content and replace with a more suitable option. We both look at the labels on the packaging of the food I eat so I can keep a close eye on it.
“When I’m tempted to eat fast food or a chocolate digestive biscuit, I’ll now go for an alternative rather than going without. I might have a plain rich tea biscuit, or a fig roll instead.
“Knowledge is power I suppose and through taking part in research I’ve learned more about the disease and how to manage it better if you talk to people, listen and you then pick up on top tips from them.
“The more people you meet through research, the more you talk about it. It hasn’t helped me greatly individually, but more for the future generations.
“Research isn’t a ‘quick fix’; it’s done for the long-term gain. To help by doing my bit for the biobank study, in turn helps do my bit for future researchers, which can help contribute to one day finding a cure to this awful disease.
“When you go to OCDEM you can see in the display cabinets how diabetes treatments have changed and improved over the years. I remember my mother had to mix different types of insulin together to inject twice a day and it was a lot more complicated getting the right dose of each type mixed, not like the simple modern EpiPens you are given today.”
Professor Fredrik Karpe, the Oxford Biobank’s chief investigator, said: “The likelihood of dying from type 2 diabetes is still quite high. It shortens lifespan by about five to 10 years. Death is not a direct result of high blood sugar levels, but often because of complications such as a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure.
He said of the biobank study: “We’ve made a lot of genetic discoveries and it’s sometimes difficult to respond to that and understand it. So, if we can recall people from our database with a particular genetic makeup, then that’s a fantastic tool for this research to go forward.
“It has worked extremely well for diabetes research. We’ve made a lot of findings we couldn’t have without the Oxford Biobank.
“This work is now aiming towards precision medicine, which is where we can look into the genes which have contributed to a specific individual’s diabetes, then it becomes much easier to come up with tailored ideas of how to treat patients better. That’s how we can understand why certain drugs work better with certain people.
“This approach to systematically investigating people using valid and statistically robust data is fundamental to any type of research. We can’t learn from just looking at individual patients, we need to have a system where we put together patients in cohorts.”
Mr Hawkins is part of the Patient Research Ambassador Initiative (PRAI), where members of the public promote NHS research for example via events and health awareness days. For information visit nihr.ac.uk/patients-and-public/how-to-join-in/patient-research-ambassadors.
Participating in health research helps develop new treatments, improve the NHS and save lives. The NHS supports research through asking patients if they wish to take part in trials and healthy people if they also wish to take part, so results can be compared to those with a medical condition.
Patients are also encouraged to ask their doctor about research opportunities and view trials seeking volunteers at The UK Clinical Trials Gateway at www.ukctg.nihr.ac.uk.
The public can learn more about diabetes research at a free talk called ‘Diabetes, fat and sugar – behind the headlines’ by Dr Ioannis Spiliotis, Clinical Research Fellow at OCDEM. This will take place from 6:30pm to 7:30pm on Thursday 16 November at Lecture Theatre 1, Academic Block, John Radcliffe Hospital, Headington, Oxford. For more information visit https://oxfordbrc.nihr.ac.uk/brc-event/diabetes-fat-and-sugar-behind-the-headlines.