Kelsey and Helena

It was 5 o’clock in the evening on December 4, 2002 when standard hospital operating procedure put me in a wheelchair and moved me from the clinic and into the ICU. Earlier that afternoon, I had described my symptoms to a clinic doctor. Unprovoked weight loss, insatiable thirst, frequent urination, blurry vision, extreme fatigue, and the most depressed state I had ever experienced in my 17 years of life. The blood tests then confirmed that I had Type 1 Diabetes. Over my next two days and nights in the hospital, I learned more about my condition and how to control it, mainly how to test my blood glucose, count carbohydrates, and give myself shots.

Fast forward to November 2012 and the realization that I was coming up on a big anniversary of my diabetes diagnosis. After ten years of pricking my fingers to draw blood, regular doctor appointments, and a nearly constant stream of insulin, I decided that I could either throw myself a pity party or a party-party. On December 4th of that year, eight friends and I celebrated my 10th Diaversary over margaritas and Dos XX at a late night happy hour. So how lucky have I been? Of course, I have been lucky with those friends who helped me celebrate and lucky to have my parents, who care a little too intensely at times. But I have also been lucky because of timing. Because if I had been born 100 years earlier, I would no longer be here.

Helena Clasen and William Menth on their wedding day.

A few years ago, I began researching my family history. To be a familial genealogist is to be obsessed and fascinated by old documents, including photos, censuses, and death certificates. It was with one of these death certificates that I learned the most about Helena, my great-grandfather’s older sister. Helena was born in 1884, 101 years before me, and lived less than 60 miles from where I grew up. Her 1904 black and white wedding photo shows that she was thin, wearing a light colored dress, and a veil on her dark hair. Six years later, her death certificate stated that she died at the age of 26, leaving behind her husband and one child. But it was her cause of death, that caught my attention. “Diabetes Mellitus” was what it said and the certificate further noted that she had been in a diabetic coma for the last two days of her life. Helena had been diagnosed on October 13, 1909 (October 13th also being my eventual birthday) and was dead on October 30, 1910.

While there have been accounts of diabetes for thousands of years, it has been since Helena’s death that strides have been made to turn this disease from terminal to manageable. Helena died in 1910, the first year that the term “insulin” was coined. Twelve years later, the first insulin patient was treated and in 1923 the mass production of insulin began. 

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2015, 30.3 million Americans (or 9.4% of the population) had diabetes. The majority of these people have Type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, which I have, accounts for 1.25 million people (or 0.39%) of the population, less than 5% of all diabetics. 

Type 1 Diabetes is a disease in which my pancreas no longer produces insulin. Type 2 diabetes, also called insulin resistance, is when the body does not properly use insulin and over time cannot produce enough insulin. Why is that a big deal? Primarily because the food we consume is broken down into a sugar called glucose, which we humans use for energy. The insulin moves this glucose out of the bloodstream into the body’s cells. When it stays in the bloodstream, that’s when that “sugar coma” feeling occurs for diabetics. But it has more complications than just that groggy feeling.

My parents and I were overwhelmed when I was diagnosed, we knew of no one on either side of the family who had ever had Type 1. The exact cause of Type 1 is unknown, but it is likely a combination of genetics and an environmental trigger. The familial link in Type 2 diabetes is stronger than in Type 1, but it is also influenced by outside factors such as age, lifestyle, and environment.

Diabetes is walking a never ending, shifting tightrope of sugar management. Too low blood glucose, I liken it to being sweaty while tipsy drunk. My thoughts are scattered, my heart beats fast, and I’m prone to tripping over my feet and worse. And there’s also the threat of a coma. Too high blood glucose, they’re similar to the symptoms I experienced, but if they’re prolonged, there’s a higher risk of complications, like loss of vision, organ failure, amputations, coma, and death. 

The balancing pole of this tightrope is weighted heavily by my insulin pump and my blood glucose tester. Multiple times a days, I prick my finger and administer insulin through a push of a button. In the months after my diagnosis, my insulin delivery of choice switched from shots to an insulin pump, a device that could be confused with a beeper, which has been connected to me almost always and has made pants and dresses with pockets a necessity. 

Other diabetics give themselves shots or, in the case of some Type 2s, take oral medication. The amount of insulin that I give myself is heavily influenced on diet and exercise but also things like stress, which is hard to quantify. But the pole is also weighted with doctors appointments that include blood and urine tests, something else, and all my friends and family members who listen to me complain, support me, and “wait just a second” while I do something diabetic.

Diabetes is a hard and constant disease that takes unending work to manage. Despite this, it is extremely humbling to think that I am alive and able to live a mostly normal life because of my circumstances. Even more so after discovering Helena, I am thankful that I was born and diagnosed at the time and place that I was. I’m thankful that knowledge of the disease and the medication are readily available. I’m thankful that I have always had health insurance to pay for it. And I’m thankful that I have had family and friends who have supported me and have been patient with me, especially when I do complain.

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Lost Langholzes

Yesterday was Father’s Day so, naturally, I gave my dad a call. Yesterday was one of the few days of the year when the following does not happen: I call, my mom answers the phone, I ask for Dad, and he answers with “what’s wrong?” Usually it’s about my car. Or I can’t figure out how to use a drill. Or I need to borrow something like sawhorses, or an electric sander, or his handheld saw. But yesterday was one of those days where it is just about talking to Dad. About wishing him a happy day and letting him know that I appreciate him.

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Legacy and the Law

Last Monday, my editor (also known as my mother) had the brilliant idea that I should write about Arnold Borson. It is National Police Week, she had pointed out, so the thought of him as my weekly blog subject very much went hand in hand. It seemed like an easy idea, writing about this town marshal, but it turned out that the execution of this post was difficult so I apologize for it being a week too late.

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The Need for News

Several years ago, one of my friends was severely injured at another friend’s house. It was a chaotic situation as we worked to help and comfort him until the police, firefighters, and paramedics arrived. But what made a horrific situation even worse, was the media attention that we had received. Due to the nature of and circumstances around the injury, nearly every media source in the Twin Cities covered the incident. Even after surgery, when we knew that our friend would be okay, media trucks staked out the neighborhood, cameras were pointed into the yard, and reporters knocked on the neighbors’ doors, all in an effort to get the most sensationalized story. That’s when I began to see these ambulance-chasing news stories in a different light. What right do we, as a society, have to dig into the lives of people who are going through these tragedies? How much information do we really deserve? Not a lot, I had decided.

But as a family historian, that’s hypocritical of me.

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Family Gatherings

Last Saturday, six women converged in a one bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Monticello, MN with the goal of discussing one thing: Family. Five of these six women were the daughters of three sisters; Mabel, Gladys, and Deloris. As for the sixth, that was me, a granddaughter of Deloris. We each came armed for discussion either with photos or documents or stories. The conversation flowed easily as everyone contributed what they knew.

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Cemeteries: Digging Up Ancestral Dirt

On a two lane highway, between my hometown and the next, there is a small family cemetery set on a hill, overlooking the road. During the course of my life, I have probably passed this cemetery thousands of times, noticing it but not really seeing it. The graves are old, to be sure, that can be seen from the road. I always thought that it was interesting but that was where my curiosity of it ended.

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Grandma Borson

Grandma’s Yearbook Photo – The Argyll of 1947 – Glencoe, MN

When I first began to research my family history, I focused on the facts. The names, the dates, and the places. I had one biological grandma still living and I grilled her for clues in order to find the next piece of data. But, about a year into my genealogy research, I came to the realization that these names, these dates, and these places do not mean much without the stories. So I started listening, really listening, to my grandma’s tales. And that’s how Grandma Borson became more than just a grandmother in my eyes. I began to appreciate her for the life she had lived.

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War at the Front Door

This past weekend, I attended the Minnesota Civil War Symposium at the Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul. For many Minnesotans, especially Southwestern Minnesotans like me, thoughts of the Civil War are directly linked to the Dakota War of 1862. The symposium followed along this connection as two of the six presentations related to the battles that made up this Minnesota war as well as the aftermath. However, I’ve recently seen this conflict, its meaning, and its impact in a new light. I’ve always thought that this was interesting and important history but now I think about it as my history. In the past year, I’ve come across the obituary of my second great-grandmother, Helena, who was six years old when the Dakota War occurred. Her obituary provides insight has to how she and her parents survived.

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High Jinks and History

What do you think about when you see the stoic faces of the people in early photographs? For me, with many of my ancestors becoming immigrant farmers in Minnesota, I think of hardship, tenacity, and determination. For the personalities of these people, I would assume a seriousness that goes along with those attributes and that lifestyle. What I never thought to see, even hiding under the surface, was perhaps goofiness, trouble making, or even ill will. But it appears that at least one of these characteristics occurred in the second announcement below.

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