By RICK COUSINS Correspondent
Diagnosis of a serious, chronic life-threatening disease or disorder can push the pause button on life. It’s not unreasonable to remap one’s existence around the newly discovered illness and conform every waking minute to its demands for mitigation.

But for Zach Toth, it came more like a declaration of war. After the shock of finding out that he had, and would always have, Type 1 — or juvenile — diabetes, he hit, not the ceiling, but the road. Tearing up waves with his surfboard in far-flung places in open defiance of the control the disease could have exacted on his days had he held to conventional wisdom. And in his travels he learned about the plight of sufferers in other lands.

“When I was first diagnosed, on my 22nd birthday, I was shocked and confused,” Toth said. “With no family history and little knowledge of the disease, it was hard to grasp the fact that I would now have to inject myself with insulin several times a day to stay alive. I was an active, healthy, happy-go-lucky college kid when life pitched me this curve ball.”

Dr. Nicola Abate, a professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch is not Toth’s physician, but as an expert on diabetes, he can easily clarify the differences between the two types of the disease.

“First of all, Type 1 usually affects younger people, those less than 40 years old,” Abate said. “It is caused by loss of cells that make insulin, so patients with Type 1 diabetes require insulin administration at the time of diagnosis. Patients have to be very careful in monitoring their sugars and avoiding low-sugar reactions.

“Type 2 affects older people and runs in families. Being inactive and overweight is a major driver to developing Type 2 diabetes, particularly in people who have a family history. This form of diabetes is usually treated without insulin for a long time but it tends to progress and at some point even these patients are not able to make much insulin on their own and require insulin injections.”

So it is both common and reasonable for diabetics to limit their lifestyle to some extent to make managing their diets and regular injections a convenient part of daily life.

But Toth, a Galveston native, is having none of that.

“From the minute I was diagnosed, I tried to maintain a positive outlook on life with diabetes,” he said. “It didn’t take long for me to realize the huge daily undertaking that is staying healthy without a working pancreas. Not long after diagnosis I gave myself a choice. I could let this disease win, live a simple life, establish a consistent daily routine and make managing diabetes as easy as possible; or I could see diabetes as a challenge, a motivator, a reminder that tomorrow is not promised so to live every moment to its fullest, chasing my dreams no matter the extra effort required to manage my diabetes along the way.

“Two weeks after diagnosis, I hopped on a plane to Colorado and brought in the New Year at one of the largest music festivals in the country and since have traveled to surf, hike and learn everything I can about this precious life we live.”
Toth even tried surfing the wildest waves with an insulin pump duct taped to one leg or arm. It didn’t work well, but he was determined to be an advocate both for an active, diabetic lifestyle — he calls himself the “Travelbetic” online — and for making stable insulin more available to third-world sufferers.

“I am a global advocate for T1 International,” Toth said. “We promote access for desperately needed cheaper and easier access to insulin and diabetes supplies, proper medical care and diabetes education around the world. There are 57 million people around the globe with Type 1 diabetes and hundreds of thousands of them die due to increasing insulin prices and lack of proper health care. In many places proper diabetes care can cost 75 percent of a family’s income. It is unacceptable for so many to die of a treatable disease.”

Abate said that both types of diabetes are permanent.

“Both conditions require tremendous life-style management and continuous monitoring,” he said. “Education is very important as it is involvement of family members and good interaction with the treating physician.”

And being family or friend to a newly diagnosed diabetic can also require a bit of education, Toth said.

“They must have patience and understanding,” he said. “Managing this disease is a constant battle, a roller coaster of emotions, frustrations and triumphs. Fluctuations in blood sugar can cause nasty mood swings. A diabetic experiencing a swing can snap at the smallest irritant.

The best thing friends and family can do is show support. Encourage the diabetic in your life to be active, eat healthy and keep up with their blood sugar management.”

Well-managed then with self-monitoring and professional care, is there any challenge a diabetic can’t take on? The answer is no, according to Toth.

“A diabetic can do anything and go anywhere,” he said, while packing up for a pending three-month swing to hike in South America. “We just have to keep up the extra effort of managing our blood sugar and ensuring we have all of the medications and supplies we need. We can travel the world with nothing but a backpack, we can surf 50-foot waves and dive to the deepest depths of the ocean. We can hike through jungles and climb the tallest peaks. There are no limits.”
Rick Cousins can be reached at rick.cousins@galvnews.com.