Even though I'm a doctor, I never imagined my mum's diabetes would kill her

As a doctor, I’d said the words hundreds of times before.

I’d held patients’ hands and I’d repeated explanations as shock prevented them understanding.

But when the consultant told me that there was nothing more he could do for my mum, Helen Babu, and that her care would now be palliative, none of that mattered. Nothing could have prepared me for hearing those devastating words.

And not only because she was my mum, the woman I couldn’t imagine life without, but because the disease that had led to her being so ill was diabetes – something I never thought would kill her.

For as long as I can remember, I can remember Mum’s insulin pens being in the fridge, nestled in between the eggs, and her frequently turning away from us to inject herself in the tummy.

She had Type 2 diabetes and, although this could usually be managed through a change in lifestyle – eating healthier food and being active – Mum loved her fried chicken and fish too much to cut them out.

So she relied on insulin to control her blood sugars – and as a nurse herself, she was good at adjusting how much she needed and when.

Over the years, she needed a kidney transplant, she had heart attacks and strokes, all because of complications related to her diabetes, but she always bounced back. To me, as a young child and even as I grew up, she seemed invincible.

She had always wanted to be a doctor but where she came from in India, medical school was private and she was unable to afford to go, so she became a nurse. When I decided to follow her original dream career path, she was so proud of me.

When I did a placement at the critical care unit where she worked, she told everyone I was her daughter and they all treated me with so much love – just because they respected her so much.

It wasn’t always an easy relationship. She worried that I wasn’t married yet, and she’d shake her head dismissively when I encouraged her to eat healthier food. But I always knew how much she loved me – and I loved her back.

Then, at Christmas 2021, I had all of our family over on Boxing Day for lunch. The week before, Mum had been suffering from pain in her leg and we’d taken her to A&E, where doctors had ruled out a blood clot.

‘It’s getting worse though,’ she said, as she limped in. ‘It’s excruciating.’

As she sat down, I felt her leg. It was cold, there was no pulse and she winced as I touched it. ‘It’s an arterial clot,’ I realised straight away. This was far more than a sore leg. It was life-threatening.

‘I think we need to get you back to hospital,’ I said, forcing a smile so as not to panic her or the rest of the family, as I picked up my phone and called for an ambulance.

They whisked her straight to the Royal London Hospital, where she remained for six months. She had three major surgeries on her leg, eight blood transfusions and developed sepsis.

Even then though, I never doubted she would recover.

Then the doctor asked me into his room and explained gently that the wound from Mum’s surgery wasn’t healing. ‘Her care will now be palliative,’ he said. ‘She probably has weeks, maybe months left.’

Automatically, I shook my head. ‘This can’t be happening,’ I thought to myself in disbelief. 

Mum had always been so strong…

As I numbly thanked the doctor and left his office, my head reeled. How was I going to tell my dad and my sister? And all of the rest of our family?

In Mum’s culture, the idea of a palliative approach didn’t exist. You never stopped fighting, or gave up hope.

So when we moved her into a hospice who would just give her supportive care, it was hard for so many reasons.

I stayed by her bedside, whispering Bible scripture and praying, as she became more confused and refused to eat or drink, until she eventually took her last breath on 1 June 2022.

Going home, my heart ached for the woman who had encouraged me to dance, who had shown me her love through the home-cooked meals and who had been so fiercely proud of me and my sister.

Desperate not to give into my grief, I returned to work. But there, it seemed like every other patient in their 50s and 60s was coming to me with diabetes – and like Mum, they weren’t taking it seriously enough.

Yes, Diabetes UK does amazing work but there wasn’t anything out there targeting the South Asian community directly.

And, as I did more research, I realised we really needed it. Because we’re six times more likely to have Type 2 Diabetes in comparison to the general population, there are approximately 3million diabetic South Asian patients in the UK.

And while people understand that you can die of cancer and dementia, I’ve found that they don’t seem to understand that you can similarly die of diabetes. Even as a doctor, I didn’t think it would happen to her.

Yet, there were 140,775 diabetes-related deaths in 2021 alone.

I knew I had to do something. I hadn’t been able to save Mum, but there were literally millions of people out there I could help and educate. That was why I set up my charity, SADAH, in October 2022. It’s a word that means ‘forever’ in Hindi, but it also stood for The South Asian Diabetic Association in memory of Helen.

It is an interactive charity, with monthly meet-ups around London, educating people with diabetes and their loved ones on diet, exercise, mental health and the importance of complying with treatment. We also hold pop-up diabetes awareness sessions in Gurdwaras, Mosques and other places of worship.

In time, I hope to roll it out to other parts of the UK.

I want everyone to know how to keep their blood sugar levels under control, that they should be doing everything in their power to reverse their Type 2 diabetes and, most importantly, that although you can live with this condition, you can also die with it.

All in memory of Mum.

For more information, visit www.sadah.org

As told to Sarah Whiteley 

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