A Cop and a Needle: Policing and diabetes

An inside look of “getting on the job” and getting on with the job.

By Cst. Ian Barraclough MA
Vancouver PD

The second most difficult aspect about being diabetic is becoming one. Most of us live relatively healthy lifestyles and it simply doesn’t occur to us that we might wake up one morning and find a drastic change to our health. This is what happened to me. Randomly and unexpectedly. Despite billions of dollars spent since Canadian research scientists, Banting and Best discovered insulin in 1921; doctors are still no closer in diagnosing the reasons why a person suddenly becomes diabetic. Of course, there are a multitude of theories ranging from genetic history to stress and a poor diet, but the fact remains that there is presently no known means of preventing Type 1 diabetes.

There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is also known as juvenile onset diabetes because it generally happens in children, though adults can also be afflicted, generally up to the age of 30. In these cases, the pancreas, an organ which produces insulin to regulate the amount of sugar in our blood, simply ceases to function. As a result, Type 1 diabetics must inject insulin to replicate the operation of their defunct pancreas. Type 2 diabetes is generally found amongst the older adult population and may be related to obesity. It occurs when the pancreas starts to become inefficient, resulting in higher blood sugar levels, which are then regulated through diet or oral medication designed to stimulate the pancreas into producing more insulin.

I became a diabetic after I completed high school in the UK at the age of 16. It was summertime and I was drinking an inordinate amount of water (a key symptom as the body makes a futile attempt to flush toxins out of the body that are building up). A quick finger-prick blood test at the doctor’s surgery indicated high blood sugar and a vile of blood taken from the arm quickly led to the diagnosing of Type 1 diabetes. I had absolutely no idea what this meant. I remember being in the hospital and having a doctor demonstrate how to use a syringe by drawing insulin from a vile and injecting it into an orange. He then gave me the syringe and vile and asked me to demonstrate it back to him. I remember holding my hand out for the orange. He pointed to my stomach. A hesitant but successful jab soon had me discharged from hospital with a prescription for insulin. I still couldn’t believe it. I figured diabetes was like the flu. You take medication for a few weeks, rest up, and the body does what it has always done when you’re sick – it repairs itself. I was told that my pancreas was beyond repair.

Eventually, one simply adjusts. Within a short time, I knew everything I needed to know about the disease, the controls and therapy; the highs and lows to watch out for, how long each dose of insulin would last, what best to eat or avoid, etc. The best part was, with synthetic insulin acting so quickly upon the body, I was in a position to live my life as actively as I had always done, and simply tailor the diabetes therapy to fit my lifestyle, and not, as had been the case since early therapy in the 1920s up until the 1970s, tailor my lifestyle around a strict drug regimen. So basically, I was down to a jab before each meal, one at bedtime, and I carried glucose candy around in case my sugar levels began to fall. No meal, no jab. Sounds simple? It is.

Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. Somewhere along that line, daily injections became an unconscious routine. Indeed, after administering more than 20,000 injections, I barely remember what life was like before becoming diabetic. Think of brushing your teeth. Each morning and evening, you take a few minutes out of your schedule to stare at yourself in the bathroom mirror brushing away at the plaque building up on your pearly whites. For thousands of years, indeed, up to only a few generations ago, tooth brushing was unheard of. However, we now accept it as a hygiene necessity, not only to have fresh breath but to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. We wouldn’t dream of going a day without brushing. I wouldn’t dream of going a day without injecting insulin. It’s that routine.

Then came the most difficult aspect of being diabetic. Living with non-diabetics. By this, I don’t mean sitting next to my best friend devouring a donut. I never had a sweet tooth; don’t miss sweet things, and with insulin therapy nowadays, even if I did want a sweet snack occasionally, I could simply adjust my insulin dose accordingly. No, the problems I faced were much more insidious and despairing than having to avoid dessert.

My grandfather and father had both experienced military service in the same regiment of the British Army. I was also very keen to serve my country and follow in their footsteps. From becoming a cadet at 12 years old, I had very much focused on the goal of a military career that would have seen me signing up for 22 years service as soon as I had left school. So, I left school and signed up. Trouble was, I was now diabetic.

‘We don’t want you’ was the reply at the military recruiting office. I tried the police.     Same answer. I was absolutely devastated!

Each person I spoke with, whether in the Ministry of Defence (MOD) or police recruiting gave me the same response. ‘Thanks for your interest, but we won’t be hiring you.’ It was a bitter pill to swallow. I was essentially the same person as I was before I became diabetic. I had the same qualifications, athletic ability, enthusiasm and dedication. All the skills and abilities that had previously led to me winning awards on military courses, swimming competitively and gaining places at university now didn’t matter to unknown figures in grey suits who simply shook their heads and didn’t want to know. Indeed, once I stated I was diabetic; I barely got to the next sentence without being shown the door with best wishes for a happy life ‘doing something else.’ Problem was, I didn’t want to do ‘something else’ and I couldn’t understand why so many opportunities were so quickly refused which would have allowed me to prove that I was not the liability they immediately assumed I would be. This was often done by people in authority who knew nothing about diabetes. It was a tragedy.

Then I joined the Territorial Army (TA). This is the British version of the Armed Forces (Reserves). I joined the very same infantry regiment whose cap badge my father and grandfather had proudly served under. I passed basic training without a hitch. Shortly afterwards I was recommended for a commission. With a couple of battle fitness tests under my belt, my confidence level was high. The first Gulf War had just broken out and members from our 3rd Battalion were being called up to stand in for casualties in the 1st. I was still in the UK with training more aligned to anti-terrorist work in Northern Ireland than the sands of Kuwait. We would practice section attacks against farmhouses simulated with combatants playing the role of Irish Republican Army cells. I remember one dawn raid where we hadn’t had breakfast and a long yomp across soggy fields quickly brought down my blood sugar level.

We were ordered to run to our fighting positions. I remember sprinting a hundred yards while stuffing sugar candy into my mouth before diving into a ditch and aiming my SLR (rifle) at a window opening on the side of the target building. By the time we opened fire, my sugar levels were balanced again (literally a matter of seconds) and during that time, I hadn’t missed any of the action, (you can chew candy and shoot at the same time). However, one day I was up before the Colonel who demanded to know if I was diabetic. With an affirmative response, I was administratively discharged on the spot. Another tragedy.

I appealed to Parliament through my MP, Edwina Currie. She in turn took it up with the Secretary of State for Defence. The MOD admitted that although the rules and regulations regarding the hiring of diabetics hadn’t changed since the 1950s, the powers felt there was nothing new in the therapy that would cause them to revise their blanket rule of turning every diabetic applicant down. They argued that this was not discriminatory, because of an inherent liability linked to the disease where one could become hyperglycaemic or hypoglycaemic (too high or too low blood sugar levels) and that could lead to one potentially becoming operationally compromised at a critical moment. We put forward a medical rebuttal indicating that either of those situations are preceded by warning symptoms that are well known to a diabetic well before the situation becomes critical and can easily be averted. No negotiations followed. The door remained firmly closed.

I didn’t choose to be a liability to myself, let alone anyone else, and good control of blood sugar levels allowed me to remain as active as ever. However, I was forced do turn my energies towards going on to university because it appeared that nobody wanted to hire me for any of the careers which I had an interest in pursuing. After a couple of degrees from London, I found myself in Canada studying for the first year of a PhD. However, funding was running low, and I was tiring of the academic lifestyle. It was time to enter the workforce. I joined the Canadian Forces (Reserves) and did my basic training on Vancouver Island graduating as an instructor at Vancouver’s HMCS Discovery in a cadet instructor role. No problems arose with being diabetic and I received my commission and subsequent substantive rank of Sub-Lieutenant. I then attempted to transfer into the regular force. Refused again, I returned to Vancouver and worked as a civilian in the yacht building industry. Then an unexpected bankruptcy of my employer triggered a career change. I brainstormed my resume and thought about the journalism contracts I had undertaken in the UK while a grad student. I wrote to editors of all the newspapers in town and received a positive response back from the Vancouver Sun and the North Shore News. The latter was willing to interview immediately and I was soon writing as much content as I could get published for their tabloid. Then a friend of mine joined the police. This awoke past glimmers of enthusiasm. I stopped by a recruitment fair in Vancouver and I remember telling the recruiting staff of my interest and that I was diabetic. “We’ll have to make some phone calls” was the response…and a week later my worse fears were confirmed. No room at the Inn. So I went back to covering local politics.

By now I had applied and been turned down for numerous positions because I was diabetic, more than I care to remember. I still refused to believe I was unemployable, but I didn’t think I could take any more heart breaking disappointments. I resigned myself to becoming a journalist and pursued the field with vigour and enthusiasm. But then a chance meeting with a Mountie was to change all that forever…

In the summer of 2001 my parents came out to Vancouver from the UK for a visit. I had been invited to attend a surprise birthday party for a friend at a downtown restaurant and I took my folks along. They barely knew anyone in the room and ended up chatting with another guest who was also on his own. We dined together. During casual conversation, it transpired our dinner companion was a Mountie. I lamented the fact that I may have been one too if it were not the fact that I was diabetic. Our new friend sounded most surprised and asked many questions with evident interest about my history of applications and disappointments. It was an enjoyable discussion in that there were not many people who I had come across who were that interested, or knew enough about diabetes and the challenges of policing to share my opinion that it ought not form an automatic barrier. He offered me his card at the end of the evening and encouraged me to forward my resume if I was still interested in joining the force. Much to our surprise, it transpired that our most unassuming dinner companion was a senior member of the RCMP.

The following day, my resume was dispatched. It transpired that diabetics weren’t being hired; though they may be retained on the force if they become diabetic while already a member. But it appeared that the Mounties might be open to reconsider. Buoyed by the possibilities of realising a long-time dream, I began my application process. During this time, I attended a military funeral in Vancouver where I bugled last post and reveille for a Canadian veteran. A Vancouver Police bagpiper was also present to pipe the lament. Afterwards we chatted, and the piper, a senior constable with the department, stated that if I was applying for the RCMP that I should consider the Vancouver Police Department. I recalled my enquiries years earlier at a career’s fair where I had been turned down. Undeterred, he also left me with his business card and told me to contact him. Shortly after, I found myself immersed in the Vancouver Police Department’s application process, ever optimistic, yet bracing for that heartbreaking phone call that had been the hallmark of countless previous applications.

The phone call came. But rather than the usual, “thanks for your interest” it was a more open, “we have a specialist that we’d like you to consult.” The positive medical report and recommendations as a result were then upheld by the City doctor. Then came feedback from the insurance company. There were no objections, and before I knew it, I was sitting my final interview. It was surreal; it somehow felt like I was stepping back in time and doing something, which I would have done many years ago, had such an opportunity arisen. I still don’t know who it was that made the final decision in the department, but they certainly had an open mind and it was evident from all the recruiting staff that I met that they were prepared to treat each applicant on an individual basis; weighing up the pros and cons of their backgrounds and abilities, rather than looking for cookie-cutter cops.

Block 1 basic training at the Justice Institute of B.C. (JIBC) went smoothly. Block 2 ‘on-the-job’ training was fantastic. I was fortunate to find myself teamed up with a highly experienced field trainer. His sharp mind and hunter instincts combined with high energy and enthusiasm for every aspect of the job made him an excellent and formidable police officer. It was a thoroughly enjoyable challenge to keep up with his ‘let’s go get ‘em’ pace which meant we were always very busy. Extremely talented in imparting the art of policing, working alongside him was occasionally exhausting, but always fun. The result was that he not only succeeded in developing my skill set and confidence level, but inadvertently put my diabetes to the test. Breaks were irregular and infrequent and meals were often taken on the fly. As a result, I successfully completed this portion of my training utterly convinced that being diabetic was no barrier to me becoming a police officer.

After successfully completing Block 3 training back at the JIBC, I graduated earlier this year as the first insulin-dependant cop to be hired in British Columbia. And life on the road has been a blast. My squad-mates have been particularly positive. Curious as to how our blood rises with glucose due to sugar intake, we all tried out my five-second-blood meter after eating a Tim Horton’s donut! Sure, shift work may take its toll on the body, but with good control over ones blood sugar, combined with healthy eating and a regular exercise routine, there hasn’t been anything which I have faced, nor can foresee facing, that would compromise my abilities to carry out 100% of my tasks 100% of the time. A small 4” blood glucose meter (for blood sugar testing), together with glucose candy in case it does run low, or a meal is missed, fits innocuously into a black pouch with a second pair of handcuffs on the back of my duty belt. Thus, when staked out behind some bush for hours on end, I always have a sugar supply with me. This was no different from what I carried in my combat jacket on exercises with the TA. My limits then are no different from that of a regular healthy person. I’m as unlikely to find myself on duty without sugar as I am without my sidearm.

All that said, my story is not a mandate for a blanket hiring of diabetics. Rather, it is a critique of the blanket ban that befell me for most of my life. A diabetic who chooses to neglect his or her health and fails to monitor his or her blood sugar levels is a time bomb waiting to explode. But many diabetics, like myself, take the condition very seriously and become very disciplined and very healthy as a result of a good diet, regular exercise and routine medicine. To finally be evaluated upon my individual merits for employment was a dream come true.

This story is dedicated with heartfelt gratitude to all those whose open minds helped me realise that dream.

Constable Ian Barraclough currently works in the Operations Division of the Vancouver PD in District 4, Team 5 patrolling southwest Vancouver.

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