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Dee Brehm - Type 1 Diabetes


Ann Arbor, MI - 2006 — Like millions of people in the U.S., Dee Brehm suffers from diabetes. But her story is unique — she has lived with type 1 diabetes for over 56 years and suffers from no disease-related complications. And her journey has led Dee and her husband Bill back to the University of Michigan, where she received her initial diagnosis.

In 1949, when Dee was just 19 years old and a freshman at Eastern Michigan University, her life with diabetes was set in motion. She began experiencing weight loss and excessive thirst, both early symptoms of the disease .

“I could eat and eat and still lose weight. Instead of eating one dessert, I would have two.”

But a nearly 30-pound weight loss finally prompted Dee and her parents to seek medical attention.

Dee was quickly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, and cared for by Dr. Jerome Conn, then the chief of endocrinology at U-M. Although it answered the question of what was causing her weight loss, the diagnosis was frightening.

Treatment at that time was not as advanced as it is today. In fact, according to Dee, it was a little scary, to say the least.

“I had a couple glass syringes that I would have to sharpen using emery cloth.” Dee recalls, “They were expensive for the time, nearly $5 each, so I would try to use them for as long as I could.”

In addition, the day-to-day management of the disease became a guessing game. Unlike now, diabetics did not have the luxury of their own personal blood glucose meters — these did not become available until 1980. Initially, Dee had to boil her urine in a test tube and treat it with a reagent to determine whether she was spilling sugar. Later a much more convenient technique became available using test strips and a “dip and read” procedure, but it wasn't very accurate and the reading came many hours after the fact. The results were based on a numbering system, with a “four” reading indicating that the level of sugar in her blood was high. Dee recalls, “Even if it were a four, you never knew exactly how high your sugar was. It could have been 200 or 500.”

The long-range outlook for the disease was grim, as well. When Dee and Bill became engaged, Dr. Conn requested a meeting to make sure they both realized what it meant to live as a couple with the disease. Dee can vividly remember the four dismal statements Dr. Conn made to them: Dee’s life span would be cut short; she would suffer from many complications; the chances of them having a family would be unlikely; and she would have the disease for the rest of her life.

Fortunately, they have proven Dr. Conn wrong on three out of the four points. Dee has lived with the disease for over 56 years and without complications. Moreover, she and Bill have one daughter and one son, and are very proud grandparents of six healthy grandchildren.

However, Dee and Bill are now on a mission to prove Dr. Conn wrong on his final point. They are determined to find a cure for type 1 diabetes. The inspiration for this came about during a normal afternoon at their McLean, Virginia home. Dee was in the kitchen preparing dinner when Bill entered the room and asked if he could help. Dee clearly remembers the words, “You can find a cure” coming from her mouth, almost out of nowhere. Always up for challenges, Bill simply stated, “Okay.”

Now, almost six years later, Dee and Bill are making their vision a reality. Through a generous $44 million donation to the University of Michigan, they are funding the creation of the Brehm Center for Type 1 Diabetes Research and Analysis. The Center is part of the Kellogg Eye Center expansion project, which is expected to be completed in 2010.

The Brehm Center will form a coalition of top diabetes experts from around the world. Using state-of-the-art information technology, these experts will be supported in their bench research and in their ability to collaborate and communicate like never before. The goal is to accelerate the search for a cure. Bill notes that the search — which surrounds the research process — is an enterprise, and it must be first defined and then managed as one.

This enormous undertaking goes back to Dee’s and Bill’s unwavering determination to beat the disease. Dee explained that Bill has been extremely influential in her care and stated jokingly, “I have told people that I may have type 1 diabetes but Bill has ‘type 3.’ He is involved in the day-to-day management of the disease as much as I am.”

While their mission is strong, Dee still lives with the disease each and every day. Her disciplined approach to her care and health makes her a role model for other diabetics.

“I test my sugar between eight and 10 times a day. I watch the amount of carbohydrates I consume, eat healthy, and stay very active,” Dee says.

In addition, Dee participates in a clinical study at the Joslin Diabetes Center affiliated with the Harvard School of Medicine. This Medalist Study focuses on individuals who have survived type 1 diabetes for 50 years or more, more than half of whom are free or relatively free of complications. Dee and the other study participants are medical mysteries. The Joslin researchers want to find out how they do it. If they can unravel these mysteries, they may well find the basis for therapies that could help others with the disease, including those newly diagnosed.

Simply put, Dee herself is a gift. Together, she and Bill not only invested their own personal resources to the cause but their time, energy, and devotion as well. They are “hands on” in their mission. Their long road and actions give new meaning to the word "philanthropy."

Learn more about type 1 diabetes