Diabetic Alpena woman, 96, shares life's highs and lows

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ALPENA, Ark. (AP) — This year Elizabeth Milligan was ready for her birthday, she turned 96 on Monday, March 23, and is quick to count her blessings on her longevity. According to statistics, because of her juvenile type 1 diabetes, she has outlived the odds by at least 15 years. She has been insulin dependent for the past 74 years.

"Elizabeth was always the sickly child," states her niece, Ann McGehee, daughter of one of Elizabeth's younger sisters, Grace McGehee.

As a child Elizabeth's injuries and bruises never healed as fast as her other seven siblings, the Harrison Daily Times (http://bit.ly/1EGA2Hb ) reported.

She recalls falling off a big mule, and getting a "soft sore" on her forehead. "It took months and months for it to heal," Elizabeth said.

But it wasn't until teaching in Texarkana in 1941 that Elizabeth learned she had diabetes. Through her four years of college at Arkansas Tech in Russellville and then Arkansas State Teachers College in Conway, now University of Central Arkansas, Elizabeth lived almost as any other healthy, young woman. There were symptoms at the time, but she had not connected them to diabetes. But as she got more and more away from her diet of home grown vegetables and simple canned foods, her health began to spiral downward.

During her first years of college, she shared a room with her sister, Mary Ann, off campus. Out of necessity, the sisters did their own cooking with foods brought from home and did their own light housekeeping. She feels the diet helped to keep her health in balance.

To keep both herself and her sister in college, Elizabeth spent her third college year teaching in Hartford. When receiving a pay warrant she would pay her $25 room and board fee, her sister's $25 room and board and was left with $12. She then spent another year and two summers obtaining her degree.

After graduation, she began teaching second grade and boarding with a local family in Texarkana. There she was introduced to more of the "spoils of sugar" she said, enjoying meals with her landlord family who ate desserts frequently.

After her diagnosis, by a local doctor in Texarkana, she was given a large, glass syringe and needle with which to administer her insulin; these were boiled and reused between injections. At that time, there was no device for "real-time" monitoring of blood glucose levels for home use and Elizabeth relied on litmus-type urine test strips that indicated sugar levels only after they had passed through the kidneys.

Over time she learned to soak her syringe and needle in alcohol instead of boiling and about the mid-80s was provided a monitoring device she could use at home. In-home monitoring meant she had to prick her fingers to draw blood samples several times a day — a routine she still continues today.

To make matters worse, Elizabeth was considered a "brittle" diabetic, meaning her disease was unpredictable and difficult to regulate. She was also glucose unaware, if her sugar levels were off, her body gave no warning signs of a change.

Elizabeth's life with diabetes has not been without high and low sugar episodes; one such episode left her in insulin shock, unconscious for an entire day before being found, she said.

Elizabeth continued her teaching, elementary art, and first and second grade, and then in 1945 she met her future husband, Claude Milligan, a World War II veteran. They married in 1948, in Harrison, and moved to Kansas City, Kansas, where they spent the next 52 years of their 54-year marriage. Claude worked for Phillips Petroleum and Elizabeth taught at first grade at Roosevelt Elementary school, located just a few blocks from their home. She walked to school each day; with her diabetic history she never acquired a driver's license. The couple also never had any children; at the time of her childbearing years, diabetics were advised against having children, Elizabeth said.

"I taught school for 37 years, going 13 years in a row without missing a single day of school," she added.

After Elizabeth's retirement and while Claude was still working, he would call daily at noon to check on her. He became so in tune to Elizabeth's disease, he was said to be able to feel of her forehead and predict her sugar levels. "It was a claim he proved over and over again," Elizabeth said.

The year 2000 found the couple both exceeding 80 years of age. Elizabeth's health was continuing to fail and Claude, in 2001, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. When he entered the hospital, she, not able to be left alone, entered an adjoining nursing facility. Her sugar episodes and a fall resulting in a broken hip, soon put her in the hospital also.

In 2001, to better care for the couple, Grace employed a private plane and medical team to relocate them to a nursing home in Harrison. Claude and Elizabeth enjoyed 18 peaceful months together before Elizabeth fell and broke her second hip; then on March 29, 2003, Claude died.

That April, at age 84, Elizabeth suffered a pulmonary embolism. At the time, odds were not in favor of her survival.

After her recovery she moved in with her sister, Grace, in Alpena; that was nearly 13 years ago.

Diabetic complications have left Elizabeth with glaucoma, which she has had for 35 years, and the loss of her right, big toe. She has also suffered circulation problems with her right foot.

Elizabeth and her family contribute her medical miracles to the quick and dedicated work of her local family physician, a cardiovascular team in Fayetteville, NARMC and its wound care team, and the caring work of local doctors.

Elizabeth continues her routine of insulin shots four times a day and takes three different kinds of eye drops several times a day for her glaucoma.

She is the recipient of a 50-year Lilly Diabetes Journey Award, given by the Lilly company, one of the first companies to commercially provide insulin. She is now in the process of applying for the 75-year award. The awards stand to her determination and discipline in managing her diabetes through insulin therapy, said her family and the Lilly company.

At age 94, she began writing a "book," so far 24 pages, penned in her own hand, about her childhood and early teaching career.

She enjoys watching Lawrence Welk and Jeopardy on TV, reads the Harrison Daily Times every day and "putters through the house on her walker," said her family.

"I want people to know," said Elizabeth, "that diabetics can have a good life by following the rules; stick to a strict diet, take your insulin on time and don't be afraid to test."

Elizabeth celebrated her birthday with family and friends at the place she was born, the old, restored farm of her parents, WVD and Minnie Patterson, near Alpena.


Information from: Harrison Daily Times, http://www.harrisondaily.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Harrison Daily Times

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