Rebecca Woolly's diabetes battle: 'I lost my eye, but not my life!'

After losing an eye, the Hamilton disability sector worker warns young diabetics to take their health seriously

By Cloe Willetts
If there's one thing Hamilton woman Rebecca Woolly wants young people living with diabetes to know, it's the importance of taking their health seriously.
As a teenager, the disability sector worker often neglected taking insulin for her diabetes and filled her body with sugar, despite knowing the risks. After all, any tests she did at the doctors came back fine. But when Rebecca hit her twenties, her health suddenly deteriorated and, tragically, she lost her right eye. Five years later, she also underwent a double transplant for a new kidney and pancreas.
Rebecca was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as an eight-year-old after she presented with symptoms including nausea, lethargy and an incessant thirst she couldn't quench, no matter how much water she drank.
She spent a month in hospital learning how to inject herself with insulin but resented having to do it.
"I had a chip on my shoulder about being different from the other kids," recalls Rebecca, 49. "I didn't want to stop playing with my friends to go and inject, which is kind of how I ended up in the place I got to.
"I ate what I wanted and for a long time, I thought I was that one person getting away with it, so I carried on being a little delinquent. Even in my teenage years, I was rebellious and probably drank too much alcohol. All things I obviously regret now."
"After all those years of not treating my body as I should have, it came in like a tsunami," says Rebecca.
Rebecca refers to diabetes as a "silent killer" as people can go for years without showing any worrying test results, and then suddenly it causes damage to organs and tissue, like it did for Rebecca at 26.
"I started to see 'floaters' [little black specks], which was because the blood vessels in my eyes were becoming weak and starting to bleed," says Rebecca, who lives with her supportive partner of 15 years, Mike Ditsche, 51. "They'd break off and it happened really quickly.
"I needed laser surgery on both eyes, which seals the blood vessels to stop them from bleeding. I had six surgeries, but after the last one, the retina in my right eye detached and once that happens, there's nothing that can be done to save your eye."
She lost sight in that eye and learnt to adapt, but when it began to have a sunken appearance as a result of not being used, Rebecca was terrified to learn that her only option was having the eye removed completely.
With supportive partner Mike.
"I couldn't get around the thought of having a part of me taken out," she tells. "That was the thing I really struggled with. The day they went to do it, I chickened out and the surgery was cancelled. A little while later, I knew I had to because the eye became very weepy and sore. The decision was made for me."
Surgeons removed her eye, creating a new socket out of coral from the ocean, which was wrapped in tissue from a deceased donor and then placed in the eye cavity to settle for six months.
"In that time, I wore an eye patch and then they made the prosthetic lens that goes in, matching the colour to my other eye and making the little red vessels out of craft cotton.
"It's very different these days and they don't use coral now, but it's a very interesting process. I remember walking into the workshop all those years ago, and they had eyes, ears and noses for burn patients and accident patients. It's just amazing – they're so clever."
Around the same time, while juggling part-time nannying with fatigue, nausea and brain fog, Rebecca learnt she had kidney problems. The nerves in her legs and feet also started playing up.
"After all those years of not treating my body as I should have, it came in like a tsunami and it all happened at once," tells Rebecca, who underwent a double transplant at 31 for a new kidney and pancreas.
"I'm so grateful to my donors because my body took really well to the organs and the transplant meant I now no longer have diabetes."
While her prosthetic eye lasted about 20 years, the socket became infected two years ago, when the tissue started to deteriorate. Because of COVID and a stretched health system, Rebecca walked around with her right eye slightly closed while she waited until last month to have the infection removed and her prosthetic altered to better fit her eye socket.
After receiving a new kidney and pancreas, Rebecca is no longer a diabetic.
Since diabetes is the leading cause of preventable blindness in Aotearoa, Rebecca wants anyone else with the disease to understand the importance of having regular eye checks.
"I'm very lucky with where I'm at now and I use that term loosely because I'm aware things can always go wrong," she reflects. "But I'm happy, in a great relationship and job, and healthy. I've been given this second chance at life."

Focus on eye health

November is Diabetes Action Month, Diabetes NZ's annual campaign encouraging all Kiwis to take action for diabetes. The 2023 theme is "Eyes on Diabetes" as it's the leading cause of preventable blindness in Aotearoa. Everyone living with diabetes is at risk of losing their vision.
The good news is, with early diagnosis and treatment, eye damage can be reduced or even prevented. The most important thing to do is to get regular diabetes eye checks. For more information, visit diabetesactionmonth.org.nz.
  • undefined: Cloe Willetts (1)

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