By Thrive Editorial - Contributor

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Blue Cross MN member keeps diabetes in check

November 15, 2017

It was Gary Johnson’s 18th birthday on March 31, 1972, when he made his first visit to the eye clinic at the University of Minnesota to participate in a study on the most common diabetic eye disease, retinopathy.

He had lived with Type 1 diabetes for 16 years by that point and began having vision problems a few years earlier. “They told me I’d be blind within five years and I’d be on dialysis, have a kidney transplant or be dead within seven years,” Johnson remembers.

Today, at 63, the semi-retired Bloomington, Minn., resident and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota member, has stable vision and leads an incredibly active, healthy life. You might find him at a local ice rink reliving his amateur hockey league days, running up the steps at Minnehaha Regional Park— or hula-hooping at a Minneapolis block party.

Johnson has seen his share of bumps, bruises and surgeries from a life of sports and adventure, but you’ll never hear him complaining about the disease that 45 years ago was predicted to take his life—the diabetes he’s relentlessly managed for 61 years.

“I might have health problems,” he says, “but they’re not diabetes.”

Johnson is one of roughly 320,000 Minnesota adults diagnosed with the diabetes and a powerful example of the ability to live a happy, healthy life through proper diabetes management.

“I might have health problems, but they’re not diabetes.”

Lack of public understanding

Back when Johnson rode his bike all over Minneapolis with his friends, he used to pack sugar lumps and Circus Peanuts for cases of low blood sugar, causing his buddies to say they wished they were diabetic so they could eat candy. Later in life, working in a lab as a biochemist, he would get comments from colleagues confused about whether he needed an insulin injection or sugar.

“It’s kind of frustrating because the general public doesn’t understand that if someone needs help to the point where they can’t give it themselves, they might do the wrong thing and it could be catastrophic in that situation,” Johnson says.

Technology improvements matter

Johnson says the arrival of the at-home glucose monitor in the late 1970s saved his life by allowing him to check his blood-sugar levels throughout the day, especially before and after meals and during exercise. He learned to give himself insulin shots at the age of 4, but relied on how he felt, along with supportive parents and friends, before the meter came along. He believes the ability to accurately monitor his blood sugar and properly dose insulin early on might have prevented his eye problems.

Johnson also now uses an insulin pump that he programs as needed and a continuous glucose monitor. He continues to check his glucose levels about eight times a day and now uses glucose tablets in lieu of sugar lumps and Circus Peanuts if he experiences a low-sugar episode.

Staying inspired

Johnson says he’s not too old to find new ways to improve his health—he’s made a point of doing that since he was a teenager, when he received the first of what would ultimately be about 40 eye operations. He considers himself a fighter who will never give in to the disease he’s spent a lifetime with. And if he can impart that attitude on other diabetics, he’s happy to do so.

“I have never felt sorry for myself,” Johnson says. “If you could live to be 150 and never had to eat or drink or sleep, you still could not begin to do everything you wanted to do, and experience everything you wanted to experience. You have to make priority choices and the first thing to go out the window is self-pity. I enjoy life.”

Are you at risk for diabetes?

Find out how at risk you are for diabetes by taking a prediabetes risk test at

Editor’s note: The full version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of thrive., a healthy living newsletter for Blue Cross Medicare members. The full issue, along with past issues, is available at  

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