Dorothy Thoeny has been beating the odds for 55 years, and with her husband, Jerry, she’s had a full life doing it.
On July 15, the Forest Lake couple will celebrate 60 years of Dorothy, 75, being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, but doctors didn’t expect her to live longer than 5. When Dorothy, then a 15-year-old farm girl from Braham, received her diagnosis, the doctor who gave it to her didn’t believe she’d survive long past her teens.
“The hospital was closed, but I’m still around,” she said with a smile.
Growing up on a dairy farm, Dorothy had never been a big girl, but when she was 15, she began losing weight and experiencing bouts of severe thirst. Worried, her parents brought her to the doctor’s office in Braham, where she received her diagnosis.
Type 1 diabetes, often called juvenile diabetes prior to 1970 because of its likelihood to manifest in childhood, is a disease that results in the loss of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, resulting in dangerously high blood sugar, or glucose. People with diabetes are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and an imbalance of insulin and blood sugar can lead to complications in the liver that can ultimately lead to coma or death.
Dorothy didn’t know all of the specifics when she received her diagnosis. What she knew was that she now had to be careful about the kinds of food she ate and that she would have to take four shots of insulin each day – a scary prospect at age 15, especially when her syringes were larger contraptions of glass and stainless steel that often dulled when she washed them in the farm’s hard water.
“They were like putting a two-by-four in me,” Dorothy recalled, adding that despite six decades of daily injections, she still hates needles.
While Dorothy was focusing on the daily trials of life as a young diabetic, she didn’t know the much grimmer news her doctor had told her parents: He didn’t think she’d live past the age of 20.
Living with diabetes was tougher 60 years ago than it is today. Rather than synthetic human insulin, diabetics were injected with insulin from cows or pigs, which is similar in composition to human insulin but just different enough in its amino acid composition to trigger an allergic reaction in some patients. While Dorothy now has a meter that can measure her blood sugar level, the methodology for determining her levels was much less precise when she was first diagnosed. Furthermore, the teenage years are often some of the hardest years for diabetics, as teens may forget or slack off on their blood sugar maintenance.
To make matters worse, Dorothy was dropped from her parents’ insurance after she was diagnosed. Insulin was expensive enough, and Dorothy was burdened with the knowledge that a hospital stay or frequent visits could mean financial jeopardy for her family. For the remainder of her childhood, she never went back to the doctor, and she kept herself on a strict regimen, eating the correct foods and going on runs to taper off her glucose level when she sensed it was running high.
When Dorothy met Jerry, he didn’t know she was a diabetic. All he knew was that he was nervous about asking her out. She was working at the local bank in Rush City, and he had recently moved to town from a farm on Lino Lakes, land which would later make up part of the state prison in that city. Their first date required a little bit of initiative of Dorothy’s part.
“He was real shy, but he was going to the football game that night, so I went to the football game,” she said.
The pair were married on Aug. 26, 1961, about five years after Dorothy’s diagnosis. The two had already been dating for a while before Jerry learned Dorothy was diabetic, but he was willing to risk the heartbreak of her prognosis.
“I just figured, ‘We’ll make ‘er,’” he said with a chuckle.
In a way, the Theonys’ marriage was a threshold in Dorothy’s exceeding of her doctor’s expectations. At 20 years old, the year she wasn’t expected to survive, she started a family with Jerry. The couple later had two children, Kimberly and Keith, neither of whom is diabetic, and Dorothy has lived largely free of the health problems that often plague other diabetics, like heart issues, circulation worries or blindness. Her journey has not been without rough patches, perhaps most notably a transition from beef-pork insulin to synthetic human insulin that left her levels imbalanced for three months until a doctor realized her dosage was off, but she knows she’s been far better off than many Type 1 diabetics of her era.
“There were two (others) I knew, and they’re both gone,” she said.
Dorothy is reticent to take credit for her health, instead citing good fortune or Jerry as reasons for her continued vim and vigor – “I can tell when she’s getting low, so I can get her orange juice,” Jerry remarked – but she remains a vigilant monitor of her levels and a strict guardian of her diet. Her one vice is ice cream, a treat she’s allowed to eat half a cup of.
“Who can eat (only) a half a cup of ice cream?” she exclaimed.
The Thoenys moved to the Forest Lake area in 1963 because it was close to both sides of their family, but they’ve loved the community ever since. Jerry worked in construction, but Dorothy immersed herself for three decades in various food service jobs in Forest Lake Area Schools. The couple loves to travel and visited 48 states before tailing off their travels due to Jerry’s kidney dialysis; now, they can be found frequenting the community’s many restaurants.
When Dorothy reached her 50th year of post-diagnosis life, her insulin provider sent her a medal, and the couple celebrated at their longtime church, Faith Lutheran. In early July, they’d not yet made plans for year 60, but Jerry was confident that the sixth decade of Dorothy’s accomplishment would be brought in with due recognition.
“I’m sure we’ll think of something,” he said.