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What it’s like to...


Take a risk after a life-changing diagnosis

Linda Mulhern
Rotary Club of St. Paul, Minnesota

 

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1975. At the time, my doctor told me that I had 20 years to live and that if I didn’t take care of myself, I’d be six feet under. I was 12.

I remember the tears in my grandmother’s eyes when she came to see me at the hospital. She grew up before insulin treatments were developed in the 1920s, so she remembered the days when kids who were diagnosed with diabetes died. Doctors couldn’t do anything for them.

My mother was a nurse and was very matter-of-fact when it came to managing the disease. She made sure I knew it was my responsibility to take my insulin, watch my diet, and exercise. She was there if I needed her, but I was responsible for managing my health. She made that clear.

So I made a decision. I wouldn’t let diabetes stop me. If I really did only have 20 years to live, I wanted to make them count. I played soccer and other sports, I was in the school play, I joined the speech team. But I wanted a bigger adventure, so I applied to spend my junior year of high school abroad with an international student exchange organization. But when they learned I had diabetes, they rejected me. It was too much of a risk to send a student with a chronic condition abroad.

Then my mother saw a small ad in the paper that said our local Rotary club was looking for students to apply for their Youth Exchange program. I submitted an application and was very upfront: I told them that I had type 1 diabetes but that I knew how to take care of myself. I didn’t care where I went, I just hoped I’d be accepted. They forwarded my application first to Argentina, then to South Africa. But I was turned down. As summer approached, it looked like I wouldn’t be spending the year abroad.

In June, a few members of the club went to the 1979 Rotary Convention. At one session, they explained that they were trying to place a girl with diabetes with a host family but couldn’t find a district that would accept the risk. To their surprise, a Rotarian from Sweden stood up and said, “I have the exact same problem. Would you be interested in switching?”

Everything happened quickly after that. I left on 9 August 1979. All I knew was that I was going to Mariestad, Sweden, and a girl named Karin Kjellberg was coming to Minnesota. We’d stay with one another’s families for a year.

The day I left, I was very excited. My father’s family had immigrated to the United States from Sweden, and looking at the map, we realized I’d be going to the same area that my great-grandparents were from. I would even have some third cousins nearby. It felt surreal — a great-granddaughter was coming home.

I went to school in the town of Mariestad, but my host family lived on an estate in the countryside. One of my favorite things was going for long walks with my two host sisters, who were only a few years younger than me. We’d see elk and deer. I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, so it was thrilling to go out and see wildlife. We’d wander around the countryside, picking juniper berries and blueberries.

When my host family would sit down to dinner, they were never in a rush. We’d enjoy steaming pans of meatballs and potatoes, along with sauces made with mushrooms or berries we’d picked ourselves. I came from a family where it was hurry up, eat, we have to get to a soccer game. But Karin’s family would sit there for an hour and just talk. I enjoyed the conversation, even though I couldn’t understand much at first. But by Christmas, I was dreaming in Swedish.

Back home, Karin joined the soccer team. She went to prom. She tried a Twinkie for the first time. She was very shy when she arrived in the United States, but people’s curiosity about her helped her grow more confident. My father was the mayor of our town, so she met a lot of people through him. He taught her how American government worked and answered her questions when she found something different or strange. My younger brother was a typical teenage boy — asking her if she knew what “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” meant and teaching her all the inappropriate words she hadn’t learned in English class. But they became very close. Karin didn’t have a brother, and she really enjoyed being around him. When he got married, she even flew in for the wedding to surprise him.

By the time we returned home, neither of us was the same. We had matured about four years in the span of one. There were no complications related to our diabetes, and I’m thankful a disease didn’t get in the way of having this experience, because that year profoundly influenced both our lives. I went on to join Rotary and have now hosted Youth Exchange students from 27 countries. Both of my children studied abroad. Karin lives in Brussels and works for the EU helping run an exchange program called Erasmus Plus. We still exchange Christmas cards, and Karin sends my mother flowers every year on her birthday. We share a bond that few people have.

As told to Vanessa Glavinskas

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• Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

• This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.