DEBORAH WILLOWS: LIVING BEYOND DIABETES AND CEREBRAL PALSY
Using her lips, Deborah Willows presses the buttons on the meter-remote for her OneTouch Ping® insulin pump. Her support worker just tested Deborah’s blood glucose and prepared one of her favorite meals—salmon quiche.
Born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), Deborah faced a lifetime of challenges even before diabetes came into her world. And she’s made an inspiring life of overcoming the word can’t by showing that she can.
“They said that I wouldn’t live, I couldn’t go to school, that I’d never graduate. I graduated from high school with honours,” she says proudly.
As a child, Deborah went through physical therapy to develop motor skills, speech therapy to be understood, and occupational therapy to learn how to accomplish daily tasks.
Up until age 13, she was fitted with metal leg braces to help her walk, but began using a wheelchair when she started having problems with her hips.
“My parents did their best to understand the challenges I faced, but they did not allow me to get away with feeling sorry for myself,” she writes in her book, Living Beyond My Circumstances.
Despite her best efforts, Deborah couldn’t control movement in her hands. So, her lips became her greatest tool—for eating directly off her plate, for writing and painting, and today for pressing the buttons on her insulin pump.
Growing up, swimming was a big part of Deborah’s physiotherapy. The water was a place she felt free—from her wheelchair and all other restrictions. Looking back, she recalls watching Olympic swimmers on TV with admiration. When a high school instructor told her about the Paralympic Games, Deborah set her sights high and committed to representing her country in swimming. Unable to float, turn her head to take a breath or control movement in her arms, it would take Deborah’s unique drive and determination to reach her goal. With the help of a floatation device, she learned she could swim on her back. Years of practice and strength training helped her achieve better arm control.
She began competing in 1981, and three years later represented Canada at the Paralympic Games in New York, setting a world record for 25-metre freestyle and placing first in the 50-metre—proving once again that she could overcome the odds.
That year, Boccia was introduced to the Games and players were needed in the most disabled class. Deborah quickly fell in love with the sport, adding it to an athletic repertoire that would have her traveling extensively for competitions over the next several years. She eventually became the first disabled person to referee Boccia, debuting at the Paralympics in Barcelona.
At age 35, Deborah was diagnosed with endometriosis and underwent a hysterectomy. It was one of many hurdles that she’d overcome, and later write about in her book, Living Beyond My Circumstances.
“I really wanted to write my own story because I wanted to encourage other people.”
Only a week after meeting with a publisher, Deborah was presented with another obstacle that would test her strength and give her reason to start a new book.
“I love my pump. I can do my own insulin now.”
With a history of diabetes in her family, Deborah’s always been familiar with the disease. “I knew the symptoms and I knew what was happening. I went to the hospital and told them I have diabetes, and I was right.”
Originally diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, Deborah faced several challenges as doctors tried to figure out what treatment was best for her. Type 2 medication didn’t work. She tried long acting insulin on its own, then later a pre-mix of fast and slow acting insulin.
“That never did work right,” she said “I was either very high or very low.”
Doctors finally diagnosed her with Type 1 diabetes. Her next step was multiple daily injections (MDI) of short and long acting insulin. But for Deborah, having CP means living without fine motor skills. She’s unable to inject insulin or test her blood glucose independently, so a routine of MDI was arduous and even dangerous.
“The first two years were very rough. They just couldn’t get my doses figured out. I kept asking for an insulin pump, but my diabetes doctor didn’t think someone with CP could use a pump,” she says. “He didn’t know me. I’ve overcome lots of things and I could overcome this, too.”
It was her family doctor—also a pumper—who finally recommended that Deborah try an insulin pump. Given her limited mobility, the meter-remote on the OneTouch Ping® made it her best option.
“I love my pump. I can do my own insulin now. If I want to have a snack in the afternoon, I can give myself enough insulin to cover it. And since I’ve had the pump, I don’t have as many lows.”
She wears her pump in a waist belt that zips closed. “This way, it can’t fall off me. It’s safe there.”
She uses her lips to push the buttons on the meter-remote, glancing back between each click to verify the dose on the screen. For Deborah, the meter-remote has brought independence, allowing her to dose without having someone pull her pump out of her waist belt for her.
Although she grew up in London, Ontario, today Deborah’s home is a private suite adjoining her brother’s house in Huntsville. The space allows her to be comfortably independent, and spend time with her nieces and nephews.
“I knew once I retired, I’d never go back to swimming. Now I enjoy painting, I enjoy writing, I enjoy hanging out with the kids next door and I enjoy being with my dogs.”
She hires a team of about 7 staff to help her, managing their schedule and payroll on her own. Each morning and evening, staff arrive to help her with daily tasks, check her blood glucose and prepare meals.
“If I need someone, I can call for help. But I don’t want someone here all the time—I need my own space. They check my blood before they leave, and if I’m low they will stay until I’m ok.”
Koda is the newest member of Deborah’s care team. The young poodle is a service dog trained to detect and alert her of low blood glucose. He’s by her side constantly. When her blood sugar falls below 3.0 mmol/L, Koda jumps into Deborah’s lap. Unwrapped candy and glucose tablets are placed throughout her home so she can treat a low if needed.
Although Koda is her 5th aid dog, he’s the first one trained to help her with her diabetes. Her furry companions are one of many support systems that Deborah has put in place in order to carry out an independent and inspiring life. Although her athletic days are over, Deborah still finds opportunities to travel and connect with other people. She now inspires audiences through her speaking and writing.
“I try to tell people that it doesn’t matter what obstacles you’re presented with—you have the ability to overcome. I’ve always believed that. My faith is what keeps me going.”