A diabetic dance teacher who played “Russian roulette” with her health for a decade by reducing her insulin medication to lose weight was told by paramedics who blue lighted her to hospital that she was just hours away from dying.
Amber Dumbill, 24, who needs insulin injections for Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition which prevents the body from making the hormone sending blood sugar levels sky high, started reducing her dose to control her weight – developing a dangerous eating disorder called diabulimia.
A keen dancer, despite only being a size 14 at her heaviest, Amber, of Warrington, Cheshire, often performed in a leotard and tight-fitting exercise gear at school, so was constantly comparing herself to more petite girls in her class.
And, moving into student accommodation at 18, while studying musical theatre at university in Blackpool, Lancashire, she stopped taking insulin and doing finger prick tests needed to monitor her blood sugar levels – causing her to shrink to a size eight.
But, six weeks into term, she woke one morning unable to get out of bed, was sick several times and called her mum, Kath, 56, who told her to phone an ambulance after she found blood spots in her vomit.
Amber, who is also a care home administrator, said: “I was told I’d have to wait four hours for an ambulance because I wasn’t a priority, so I rang my mum again who told me to take more tests. The results were so high that when I rang 999 back and told them, they sent the ambulance straight away.”
She added: “By the time we got to the hospital, my lips were turning blue and one of the paramedics told me, ‘If you’d waited four hours for the first ambulance you’d have been dead.’”
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of nine, by her teens Amber was already fudging her blood sugar results and taking less insulin than she should have been.
“I was upset when I was first diagnosed, even though I had grown up around the condition, because my dad had type 1 diabetes, too,” said Amber. “Sadly he passed away six years ago, but it was unrelated to his diabetes.”
“My packed lunch changed overnight after the diagnosis – going from white bread sandwiches and a chocolate bar to brown bread and a slimmer’s yoghurt,” Amber continued.
“It was boring and I hated not being able to eat like I used to unless I did PE, which meant I could have a chocolate bar.”
By the age of 14, full of adolescent rebellion, Amber whose younger sister Mia, 20, does not have diabetes, started to defy her diabetic restrictions and, at one point, secretly ate up to 20 chocolate bars a day.
She said: “As Dad was diabetic too, I’d fake my blood sugar results by using his old syringe to draw a blood sample, before watering it down, so it would give a lower reading.
“Looking back, I still can’t believe it’s something I used to do and would strongly advise anybody against forging any kind of medical result.”
And while her family thought her weight gain was pubescent puppy fat, she knew it was because of her chocolate binges.
“My mum tried to speak to me about what was going on, but I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I felt attacked whenever she brought it up. She knew the chocolate bars she bought were disappearing, so would find new hiding places for them, but I always found them.”
Everything changed when Amber read an article in her dad’s diabetes magazine one evening, which had been left in the bathroom.
She said: ‘There was a story about a girl who had stopped taking her insulin to lose weight and who then went blind as a result. I ignored the bit about going blind and just thought, ‘I can do that and still eat chocolate.’”
“I knew it was risky, but just thought nothing bad would happen to me,” Amber added. “I would look at class photos from school and hate the fact I wasn’t the slimmest person in them.
“Also, I was still doing ballet and having to wear a leotard and tights, so I’d compare myself to the other girls. There was one at my dance class who always looked like a twig!’”
So, Amber’s terrifying descent into diabulimia – an eating disorder largely unrecognised by the medical profession – began.
When a type 1 diabetic omits insulin, glucose cannot reach the cells, causing the body to burn fat as an alternative energy source which, in turn, produces an acidic by-product known as ketones which are toxic to the body, according to the support group Diabetics With Eating Disorders (DWED).
The resulting condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) leads to dramatic weight loss, but is fatal if left untreated.
And while diabulimics describe their disorder as ‘the perfect diet gone wrong,’ because without taking insulin they can eat what they want without gaining weight, it can lead to blindness, kidney damage and death.
But, even hearing that she could have died, after her hospital scare at university, did not put Amber back on track.
Instead, she started taking her insulin again, but took less than was prescribed in case she gained weight.
Her wake-up call came after a conversation with her mum, a housewife, soon after meeting her new boyfriend, Ed Martin, 24, a sale assistant, through work in 2018.
“I told Mum that Ed and I had been talking about the future,” she said. “We’d discussed getting married and having kids.
“She just turned to me and said, ‘You won’t be having any kids if you don’t sort out your diabetes.’
“That, together with the realisation that diabetes can cause complications in pregnancy even when it is properly managed, shocked me into realising what I was doing to myself.”
Since managing her diabetes properly, Amber has been living a healthy balanced life.
But she is now keen to raise awareness of diabulimia, which remains a largely “hidden condition,” according to DWED who claim that, by the age of 25, some 60 per cent of Type 1 diabetics will have developed an eating disorder – with 40 per cent of those affected admitting to skipping insulin to lose weight.
Amber said: “I am so grateful that I turned my life around before it was too late, but if telling my story stops just one person with type 1 diabetes doing what I did, it will be worth it.”
Psychiatrist, Professor Khalida Ismail, who runs the UK’s first diabulimia disorder clinic at Kings College Hospital in London, warns that the condition can be fatal.
He said: “Diabulimia is extremely dangerous but the fear that taking insulin causes weight gain is so strong that sufferers will stop taking it to lose weight.
“You can look well and have a normal body size but if you stop taking your insulin you will have very high blood sugars which can cause all those diabetes-related complications. If a person with Type 1 diabetes does not take any insulin they will die very quickly.”
For more information about Diabetics With Eating Disorders see www.dwed.org.uk