Ex-Republic of Ireland player Alan Kernaghan on living life to the full with diabetes
Jenny Lee chats to former Glentoran manager and Republic of Ireland international Alan Kernaghan about the challenges of living with Type 1 diabetes
HAVING diabetes "isn't the end of the world" – that's the message from ex-soccer manager and former Republic of Ireland player Alan Kernaghan.
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 21 while playing top-flight football for Middlesborough FC, he went on to play 445 professional games, as well as earn 26 caps for his country, including being part in the 1994 World Cup squad.
Diabetes is a condition where there is too much glucose in the blood because the body cannot use it properly. There are now more than 100,000 people living with diabetes in Northern Ireland, with this figure rising each year. If not managed well, long-term complications of diabetes can include sight and limb loss, kidney failure and strokes.
About 10 per cent of people with diabetes have Type 1 diabetes, which means their body can't produce insulin, a hormone essential for the absorption of sugars.
Although not diagnosed until 1989, in hindsight Alan recognises he had some early warning signs of diabetes and that his body's immune system wasn't functioning correctly.
"When I was about 15 I had quite a number of big boils which took a while to get over. "When I was about 20 I got a shadow in my left eye, which at times meant I couldn't see the ball properly. I spoke to the doctor and he sent me to a specialist who couldn't find a problem with my eyes and a few months later it went away. Then there were all the usual signs of diabetes – the constant thirst, tiredness, the need to go to the toilet and weight loss."
It was during a match against Queen's Park Rangers that Alan's symptoms escalated.
"It was quite warm and I just couldn't get my breathe. My tongue was stuck to the top of my mouth and I had no energy. I managed to last about 70 minutes before being substituted. I told the doctor when I came off there was something wrong with me," he recalls.
A urine sample quickly told Alan that his blood sugar levels were dangerously low and he went on to spend a week in hospital.
Alan requires daily insulin injections, but the condition did not unduly hinder his football career and within a couple of weeks he was back playing with the first team.
"I had to educate the manager and team-mates," he says. "One or two guys were not keen on injections, so as long as I didn't inject in front of them it was fine."
Researchers don't know exactly what causes Type 1 diabetes, which is nothing to do with being overweight and isn’t currently preventable. It usually affects children or young adults, but can develop at any age, starting suddenly and getting worse quickly.
"They weren't sure what had brought it on. The doctor told me it could have caused by a blow to my stomach during a heavy challenge," says Alan, and although there was no history of diabetes in his family, only last year his 28-year-old niece was also diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
A healthy diet and regular physical activity are recommended for those with diabetes, Alan had to be careful to monitor his blood-glucose levels as exercise and stress can cause it fluctuate.
While he did have a handful of 'hypos' – hypoglycaemia, or low blood glucose levels, which can cause various adverse symptoms – he admits to being over-cautious in monitoring his blood-sugar levels.
"I would check my sugars three times – before a game, at half time and after the game. I was very conscious of not letting my diabetes affect me and I managed to play for 20 odd years."
Alan isn't alone in managing diabetes and succeeding on the soccer pitch – former Tottenham Hotspur and England defender Gary Mabbutt also has Type 1, as does current Celtic midfielder Scott Allan.
"The only thing I've not been able to do is scuba dive because you can't get the insurance for it. Bar that, there's an awful lot you can do in life," adds the Donaghadee-based former Gletoran manager, who is keen to encourage others not to ignore symptoms of diabetes and not let it hold them back from living life to the full.
"Some parents are distraught that their son and daughter has diabetes and question what they have done wrong. That then impacts on the child in a negative way. Sadly diabetes is quite common nowadays, but we should be more positive and encouraging and let them know they can still succeed in life.
"Having diabetes did not stop me from being the professional footballer I always wanted to be. I have enjoyed my career in football, both on the pitch and on the sidelines managing my teams, and hope that by sharing my experiences I can help inspire others to push on and tackle the challenges of diabetes along the way."
The 49-year-old, who has managed Scottish clubs Clyde and Dundee, as well as Glentoran in the Northern Irish league, a post from which he resigned last year, will be talking about his personal experience of managing his diabetes during Diabetes UK Northern Ireland's Taking Action Now Conference in Craigavon on Saturday.
The event is open to anyone interested in finding out more about the condition and includes a range of workshops, cookery demonstrations and the Inspire Awards, which celebrates the contribution of it's local volunteers who go the extra mile to help people living with diabetes in Northern Ireland.
"Diabetes is serious. It is complex and it is unrelenting. It cannot be ignored or dismissed. As the number of people with diabetes increases we welcome even more volunteers, who are ready and willing to meet the massive challenge that lies ahead for all of us," says Diabetes UK Northern Ireland Volunteer Development Manager Heather Causer.
:: Taking Action Now Conference takes place on Saturday April 1 at Oxford Island, Craigavon from 10 – 4.15pm. Register at bit.ly/2nPQ0Od. For further information on diabetes and volunteering visit diabetes.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org