AT 16 years of age, Rachel Leonard has been living with diabetes for most of her young life.
The teenager from Ballydehob, Co Cork, was diagnosed when she was just six years of age and admits: “I’ve grown up with diabetes and known nothing else. I’ve probably had to grow up faster and be more responsible from a younger age because of it.”
However, there was one part of the condition which Rachel, who has just finished her Junior Cert at Skibbereen Community School, always dreaded.
People with diabetes have to take regular finger pricks to test their glucose level is fine and for a young child, it can become a worry.
Now a revolutionary piece of new technology has meant finger pricks are now a thing of the past.
Living with diabetes means that you must learn to follow strict rules around diet, exercise and glucose measurement.
Rachel says: “I have to test my blood sugar levels frequently in order to avoid ‘spikes’ —where the level of glucose in my blood is either too high or too low, which can result in loss of consciousness and in extreme cases lead to a coma.”
The teen’s diagnosis came in the spring of 2008. Initially, her mother Bernie didn’t take too much notice that Rachel was drinking a lot of water and feeling tired all the time.
However a visit to the doctor, followed by a trip to hospital, confirmed Rachel had diabetes.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when our blood glucose is too high. Blood glucose is the body’s main source of energy and comes from the food we eat.
The International Diabetes Federation Diabetes Atlas ( estimated that in 2015 there were 171,800 people in the 20-79 age group with diabetes in Ireland and that by 2040 there will be 247,800 people with the condition
Insulin, a hormone made by the pancreas, helps glucose from food get into our cells to be used for energy. When our bodies cannot make enough insulin, or don’t use insulin well, too much glucose stays in the blood and can cause serious health problems including heart, kidney, eye and foot problems.
A person with diabetes typically self-monitors their glucose by pricking their fingers to draw a drop of blood that is added to a test strip and inserted into a glucose meter. This needs to be done several times a day to check glucose levels and can be painful.
Rachel’s mother Bernie remembers; “Even though she says she didn’t mind the finger prick, Rachel didn’t test herself as often as I would have liked because of the pain.
“That can be dangerous because careful monitoring is one of the most important ways to manage diabetes.
“I remember when she was a little girl, she’d hide her hands under the bed covers when she’d hear me coming in to her at night to test her levels. It was upsetting for both of us.”
However, the new invention, called the FreeStyle Libre system, means Rachel doesn’t need to go through the ordeal again.
Used by children aged four and over, and adults, it consists of a small, round sensor — approximately the size of a €2 coin — which Rachel wears on the back of her upper arm.
She uses a small handheld reader, and simply swipes it over the sensor to get a glucose result painlessly in less than one second, without the need to draw blood.
The sensor is replaced every 14 days and the reader will work through clothing such as a jumper or shirt.
Each scan displays a real-time glucose result, a historical trend and the direction the glucose is heading.
Bernie says: “I can’t praise it enough for the difference it has made to Rachel. It’s absolutely fantastic.
“I used to worry about her when she was out with friends, but not anymore. It’s so easy to just swipe the reader over the sensor that if Rachel is feeling disoriented or low as a result of a spike in her glucose levels, her friends can take the reading for her.
“The finger prick test is more complicated and they could never have done that for her. There are no limits on her now.”
Rachel adds: “My friends are swiping me all the time!”
Rachel is now monitoring herself more often and as a result has seen huge improvement in her treatment of her diabetes.
“They were amazed at the improvement during our last visit to University Hospital Cork,” Bernie said. “It is definitely due to Rachel taking control of monitoring herself more often with the FreeStyle Libre system. She loves the data and figures the system gives her and can adjust her diet as she needs to.”
The reader holds up to 90 days of data, providing a historical snapshot of glucose levels over time.
Its software enables the data to be presented in a user-friendly, visual chart enabling a more productive discussion with healthcare professionals around treatment and any necessary modification to it. “I love analysing all of the data it gives me on my glucose levels,” said Rachel. “It’s great to see what my glucose levels were trending, particularly while I’m asleep. I get a complete reading every 15 minutes without routine finger sticks and it is totally pain free.”
Football-loving Rachel, who plays with Caheragh loves the freedom the FreeStyle Libre system gives her to play her beloved Gaelic games.
“The adrenaline and the anticipation before a game means that my levels always tend to go high before and during a game,” she said.
“It was disruptive having to come off the pitch in the middle of a game for 3 or 4 minutes to do a finger test.
“Now, I just give my reader to one of the mentors and just can swipe and run.
“I’m also able to adjust what I eat before a game because I now know the trend in my levels from downloading data over a number of games. It’s made a huge difference and allows me to live life to the fullest.”
Rachel makes light of the fact that for the rest of her life she will be injecting herself with insulin daily and will need to monitor her glucose levels. “My advice to anybody diagnosed with diabetes is don’t ever let it get you down. It might sound daunting, but it’s not half as bad as you think.
“It’s possible to live a full and active life with diabetes. The Diabetes Team in Cork are brilliant, they give me and everyone in the clinic great support and are only a phone call away. And there are new technologies being developed, like the FreeStyle Libre system which are making it easier to manage. I love the freedom the FreeStyle Libre system gives me.”