Welcome again to our ongoing series about living with diabetes around the globe. We’re very excited to bring you this special account of life in the United Arab Emirates by Aisha AlQaissieh, a 25-year-old native of Abu Dhabi, the capitol of the country, where she works at her family’s business. Aisha was diagnosed with type 1 at age 12 and struggled with her diabetes for a few years before becoming a patient at the UAE’s Sheikh Khalifa Medical City Diabetes Center, where she has found the support and guidance she needed in her diabetes management.
The United Arab Emirates has recently become a hotspot in the diabetes epidemic, with 20% of the 8 million citizens now having diabetes! In contrast, most countries have diabetes rates of about 5% of the population. Experts believe the economic success of some Middle Eastern countries have led to an increase in fast food and less exercise, which has negatively affected public health.
Despite the huge burden of diabetes on her country, Aisha has seen advancements made in diabetes care in the UAE. She has written a lovely post expressing her gratitude to the UAE’s healthcare system and the folks who work at the Diabetes Center. It’s certainly not something you hear very often from patients — certainly not in this country.
A Guest Post by Aisha AlQaissieh
Thirteen years ago, after suffering weight loss and awkward moments while constantly excusing myself to the restroom, I was laying down paralyzed with abdominal pain and watching other kids playing around and the elders fancy-dressed for Eid, one of the two most holy celebrations for Muslims. It’s pretty much like a three-day Halloween for the kids with new outfits instead of costumes.
Eid is very special to me and I didn’t want to spend it at the hospital. Despite the pain, I told my mother that I could wait till the morning. “Just please don’t take me to the hospital tonight,” I begged.
A while after I vomited, and my parents rushed me to the hospital. I was almost unconscious, and I can barely recall what happened. I went back to sleep and then woke up to my parents, brothers and sisters by my side, and it was at that moment when I was introduced to diabetes.
My father struggled to explain diabetes. The words made my mother cry and saddened my father, but they put me at ease.
“Daughter, God has given you a gift. A type of gift that is only given to the people God loves. You see my little girl: Diabetes is called a friendly disease because it becomes your friend if you take care of it and your worst enemy if you neglect it. And as you go through some changes, we are all by your side, as long as you always take control, because in the end my dear, if you don’t take care of yourself all that people can do is pity you. Don’t fall for the mercy of others when you have the choice. As our Prophet Mohammed (S.A.A.W) taught us, know that Allah loves you and gave you diabetes as a test. You shall always be grateful it isn’t anything else, always be grateful that Allah is always beside you even when you just prick your finger, and show your gratitude by taking care of yourself.”
For the past 13 years, I have recited those words almost every day. Those words opened my eyes to diabetes. Today, I don’t consider myself the weak person on the hospital bed, and my parents are not agonized about me being a diabetic. I’ve got an elder brother who looks up to me, and two sisters and a younger brother that consider Diabetes a ‘norm.’
The moment that changed our lives wasn’t me becoming diabetic; in fact, it was the words my father used in reaction to the situation.
Interestingly enough, a few years after my father shared, “I wasn’t much aware of Juvenile Diabetes at that time; your mother and I only thought of Type 1 Diabetes to be hereditary. We still believed that it was a misdiagnosis, but that day we insisted to set you on a solid track. Just in case.”
It was during my week stay in the hospital that I learned how to deal with diabetes and was prepared for a new life. On the other hand, my parents were focused on finding every information possible about Type 1 diabetes and were prepared to welcome me to a “modified” life.
For years I have struggled adapting with diabetes, and the main reason was me misunderstanding the extra attention I got. I sometimes forgot my father’s advice on being grateful and I started to act like a spoiled child. I was proud of being “different” but believed that I was too special to worry about managing blood sugar levels.
Four years after being diagnosed, my parents took me abroad for diabetes treatment, because they believed that treatment abroad was somewhat more advanced, and because there wasn’t an actual Diabetes Center in our country when I was first diagnosed. According to my father’s research, Germany had advanced treatment that was convenient in terms of location, since it was almost 7 hours away by plane, rather than the United States, which is an almost 14-hour flight.
My parents took me to a German doctor in Munich where I spent a week. Impressed by the doctor, my parents decided to start shipping my insulin from Munich and stayed in touch with the doctor when I was back home. For about two years, I sent my logbooks to Germany and got a reply on the results and what to do next. Even though I maintained my BG levels, not being able to interact with the doctor or meeting another diabetic in Abu Dhabi made me feel something was not yet complete.
It wasn’t complete until late 2005, when we found out that the General Authority for Health Services in Abu Dhabi officially opened the Diabetes Centre on November 14 (World Diabetes Day) that year. This was different than the other Diabetic Clinics at the time because it was under the Health Authority supervision and was the first specialized center for Diabetes in Abu Dhabi. Hoping for a diabetic community and a sense of belonging, I made an appointment right away.
My mother accompanied me the first time, just to make sure that they were at least somewhat knowledgeable about diabetes. The doctor explained that The Health Authority in the Emirates provides diabetics with their necessary treatment and care with no charge at all. He explained that the United Arab Emirates doesn’t put a price on health, therefore anything additional was also provided!
The healthcare system in the Emirates offers free treatment and medication for locals, for diabetes or any condition. For expats, they have insurance that covers most treatments, or requires them to pay just a tiny amount. My health card is also the insurance card which I could use in the country, or outside the country as well. If I traveled abroad for treatment, my country will cover the payments.
The Diabetes Center encourages the patients to visit at least once a month, since the doctor, consultant, dietitian, and all medical staff are highly involved with the patients. I tend to visit the Center every other week, even when I do not have an appointment. But usually my appointments are almost every month.
The care in the Center is outstanding. None of the medical staff would ever treat a diabetic as just a another numbered patient. Instead they let us feel as if they genuinely care about us, in terms of diabetes and also life. The person I see most is a consultant nurse that follows up with everything. I visit the endocrinologist every 2 to 3 months for followups, but the nurses are those who are mostly involved with diabetics. They also arrange appointments with the pediatrician, dietitian, eye doctor, blood works, health educators, psychiatrists, and other medical staffs that a diabetic could need, which are all available at the Clinic.
As we left the Clinic that first time, I remember thinking how grateful I am for being a diabetic in the Emirates, yet I seemed very ungrateful. Why didn’t it occur to me that my country would have the best healthcare? The Emirates always strives to offer the best standards for everything. As I sat in the car looking out the window and seeing all this greenery, skyscrapers, all those facilities, even the sky, I asked my mother, “Is it possible to call the Emirates my ‘Diabetic Parent’? I know the Emirates has offered us much more than healthcare, but to me as a diabetic, my country is providing me with what you and father have provided for me all those years.” I wasn’t sure what my mother’s smile meant, but she looked at me and said, “As long as you honor that name” and she explained how this was a new start with special motivation.
One of the main ongoing programs is ‘The Insulin Pump Program’ which started in 2005. A group of fellow diabetics and I decided to go on the pump in 2006. The insulin pumps were already provided by the Diabetic Clinic, however in order to be eligible, we must first be well educated about everything in relation to the pump. The program has the doctors, psychologists and dietitians highly involved in the first phase mainly, and then monthly followups. Also, the nurses (along with everyone in the program) are certified Insulin Pump Trainers and are available 24/7 for any type of support.
Today, the Diabetic Center has the largest insulin pump program in the Middle East.
The capitol, Abu Dhabi, now has many institutions that offer information and treatment for diabetics. Along with the Diabetic Center, the Ministry of Health focused on the importance of growing the Diabetes Health Care facilities by opening the Imperial College London Diabetes Center as a specialized clinic for diabetics in Abu Dhabi 2006. Not to mention the annual budget the UAE spends on treating Diabetes which ranges between US$100-200 million. This assures that the country has not only provided the UAE Nationals with free healthcare, but it has succeeded in obtaining the latest information/technology and providing the optimal care for diabetics.
However, the society is still facing some sort of barrier against making the best use of the information and treatment. I hope that one day diabetes will be more acceptable than it is today. I truly believe that the diabetes care in the Emirates is optimal, and what touches me with pride is that the Emirates still strives for the best and latest. I just hope that society would make the best use of what the country is offering and allow the ‘care’ to be mutually beneficial.
Diabetes is unfortunately something that still worries people in the Emirates as much as around the world. When you research on the Internet for the word “diabetic,” you receive horrific images and advices on how to “avoid diabetes.” People in the Emirates relate it to Type 2 diabetes, since elders are mostly diagnosed with it and elders are very important in our society along with family bonds. As a diabetic, I constantly get pity and sympathy from people. This comes from a lack of effort in learning about diabetes, as well as sincere concerns; people tend to react to diabetes as something challenging and difficult to live with.
I may have not portrayed the lives of every diabetic in the Emirates, but facts are the country has put so much effort and money to care for diabetics and strives to have the latest updates, medications, information and everything related to diabetes.
I decided to follow in my country’s footsteps and contribute to diabetes awareness. My efforts can never measure up to what the Emirates has done for diabetics, but this is my humble way of thanking my “Diabetic Parent.” I shall forever be in debt to my country, my family and the Diabetic Clinic for guiding me to reach a point where I consider diabetes such bliss, and offer my well-maintained health as a token of appreciation.
Thank you, Aisha, for sharing this very unique perspective!