When he started work at his company, many people were shocked. Even his boss asked, ‘Are you sure, Raj?’
For many people, working in an ice cream company may sound like a childhood dream come true, but when Rajwinder Singh joined it 10 years ago, it raised a few eyebrows.
Raj has Type 1 diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic disease where the pancreas cannot produce insulin – a hormone that allows glucose from food to pass from the bloodstream into the cells in the body to produce energy – or when the body cannot make good use of the insulin it produces.
This can lead to increased glucose levels in the blood, or hyperglycaemia. Over the long-term, high glucose levels are associated with organ failure and tissue damage.
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Raj, 32, was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 5. Since, he has had to manage his blood sugar levels carefully. Technology has made it easier – Raj has a pump attached to his body which automatically injects him with the insulin he needs based on his blood glucose levels.
But as far as Raj is concerned, being diabetic just means that he has to be mindful of his diet and health. It does not hold him back from living fully.
He tells The Pride: “I have always had an interest in the F&B industry and when I was offered a business development job at the ice cream company, it was just right, and I am happy with it.”
He credits the doctors and nurses at SGH, and later at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), for teaching him and other young diabetic patients to manage their condition and lead normal lives.
Raj has fond memories of attending camps for the young diabetic patients. It was at such camps that he learnt to deal with the unique needs of a diabetic patient. For instance, being able to expect and address the low blood sugar levels after a day of strenuous activity.
Paying it forward
Raj saw the need for a support group for teenage diabetic patients, whose concerns might differ from those of younger children who already had their own support group. So in 2011, with support from KKH, he started Sugar Rush for teens aged 12 to 16 with friends whom he met there.
He says: “We wanted a fun name for the group and sugar is a big part of our life.”
Raj’s experience with diabetes does have a sweet side to it. He met his wife, Puja Sharda, at one of the diabetes camps organised by KKH when they were teenagers. Inspired by the nursing team at KKH who supported her and Raj, Puja now works as a nurse educator helping adult diabetic patients.
At Sugar Rush, Raj and his friends share their personal experiences and encourage patients to try different methods to cope with the issues they face.
Sugar Rush meets about four times a year, although some closer members meet each other more frequently. With about 100 members and a core team of 12, Sugar Rush has moved its meetings and training online, in line with restrictions arising from Covid.
Raj believes that as each individual grows in understanding themself, they will develop coping techniques that suit their unique needs.
He says: “We want to boost confidence in the patients so that they do not fear diabetes.”
Volunteering to help diabetes patients and their families
One of the members of Sugar Rush is Tee Yu Tong, 17. Yu Tong was 2 and a half years old when her parents discovered she had diabetes.
At first, Yu Tong’s parents found it hard to accept that she had this condition, but came to acknowledge it over time. Her mother, Irene Goh, 50, says that she tells Yu Tong that she is like a car with a manual transmission that requires the driver to change gears in person (in her case, to administer insulin herself), unlike an automatic car (or non-diabetic people) that does not require manual intervention.
Irene shares this perspective with other mothers whose children are diagnosed with diabetes. She explains to them: “Your child is like a normal kid who just needs to take an extra step to live healthily.”
But Irene and Meng Kem, 49, aren’t content with supporting only their daughter through her diabetes journey.
As a volunteer with the Diabetes Care Team at KKH, Irene meets families adjusting to their children’s diabetes diagnoses and helps them to work through their emotions and to adapt to their new caregiving responsibilities.
“I just offer a listening ear to the mums and give them support and an outlet.”
Irene and Meng Kem used to share their experiences at the diabetes camps organised by KKH. With restrictions on physical meetings because of Covid, diabetes camps have stopped for now. However, Meng Kem and Irene started Zoom sessions during Covid to continue supporting parents of diabetic patients.
Irene also started a WhatsApp group for mothers, which has nearly 100 members today.
Meng Kem says that the support groups show families that they are not alone in dealing with their children’s illness, and it helps when these families can see other people living normally.
“These activities at the diabetes camps helped us emotionally and smoothened our journey. If other parents can do it, so can we. Now we want to give back.”
As for Yu Tong’s journey, Irene and Meng Kem have always encouraged her to be independent.
From age 6, Yu Tong has been tracking her blood sugar levels and ensuring that she has the correct amounts of insulin herself. She takes part in outdoor activities just like any young person her age. Diabetes has not stopped her from going to water parks like Wild Wild Wet, or (before Covid) travelling on overseas school trips to China and the US.
Although, being concerned parents, Irene and Meng Kem organised their holidays to be in the same city as Yu Tong during her school trips, so that they can keep an eye on her from a (not so far) distance!
Today, Yu Tong volunteers at Sugar Rush, where she shares her experiences with the newer patients.
Yu Tong tells The Pride, “I like it at Sugar Rush because we are open about sharing our experiences.”
Living life to the fullest
Another person who doesn’t let diabetes get in the way of her lifestyle is Heng Pei Yan, 35.
She is an avid scuba diver, aerial and underwater photographer, and aikido practitioner.
Looking at her social media, it’s clear that Pei Yan lives life large.
She tells The Pride: “We are no different from anyone else. Nobody knows we have a condition. There’s nothing to stop us from doing anything that we want.”
Pei Yan found out she had diabetes when she was 10. At first, it took some time for Pei Yan and her parents to accept the news and learn how to care for her. As awareness of diabetes and its treatment was low then, Pei Yan felt awkward injecting herself with insulin in front of her friends and often skipped her medication as a result.
It was only after joining a support group for children with diabetes, where she met other kids who understood what she was going through, that she grew confident in taking care of herself.
Recognising the importance of peer support led Pei Yan to join Raj and their friends to form Sugar Rush.
She says: “I’m very drawn to the support group programs because I benefited from it and I want to contribute and help the new members. It’s a wonderful feeling to be a role model. When the parents of new patients see adults like us with the same conditions as their children living life so well, they have more assurance that nothing is going to go wrong in the future.
“There is less burden on the parents.”
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Pei Yan, a secondary school teacher, embodies how having diabetes is not a limiter to what she wants to do. It did not hold her back from having scuba diving lessons, for example.
That said, she is aware of the risks that diabetics face going deep underwater, particularly if they experience low blood sugar levels. So she takes extra care and has a medical waiver to go scuba diving.
“Having diabetes made me want to try more adventurous things and push myself further. It made me push my boundaries further, how hard I could push myself. I wanted to show that having a long-term condition like diabetes doesn’t mean that life comes to a stop.”
“It’s just a matter of how you live with it. Everything else is normal.”