Many shrug it off when they first hear that they have diabetes. This is because doctor's prescriptions often do not sound serious: do not forget to take the medicine, check blood sugar levels often, and exercise often.
Most of the time, diabetes patients do not feel any symptoms. Diabetes patients often continue to live as they did even after they are diagnosed, only to be forced to go to the hospital when complications afflict them.
This is what happened to Actor Lee Chi-woo, 69. He found out about his diabetes when he was 34, but did not think much of it. He had to go through two lung operations and one heart operation during his fifties and sixties to battle complications, however.
"Diabetes was not well known in the 70s when I was diagnosed. Had I known that I would get complications and be driven to the verge of death, I would have taken care of myself better".
Lee started his career when he was 23. The only personal life afforded to a poor theater actor was drinking with his peers after rehearsals. He was a good drinker and was known to finish two liters of soju on his own.
"The worst things for diabetes patients are overdrinking, overeating, and overworking. If you drink too much, you automatically eat too much. I also worked hard during the day and drank hard during the night, so I basically worked day and night".
Lee did not feel that anything was wrong with his health until his acting career really took off. During his work on a TV drama, he was constantly fatigued and he had to visit the men's room often.
On the advice of his little brother Sung-woo, who was attending medical school at Seoul National University and thought that Lee had diabetes, Lee visited the hospital. The first hospital he visited said that Lee was just fatigued. Lee visited another hospital after resting and finding that he did not feel any better. The second hospital diagnosed him with a severe case of diabetes.
Lee found it hard to follow the doctor's advice and stop acting. His acting career had really taken off and he decided to stave off the disease with medicine. Once he started feeling better, he went back to his old partying days. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and often spent nights working. He also ate plentiful food during his regional tours.
Eventually, during when Lee reached his fifties, he was too weak to act. He coughed constantly and he was easily fatigued. He even had trouble memorizing his lines. After a night session of recording, he coughed up blood and this is when he realized how serious his condition was.
"The hospital said that I have a big hole in my lung. My immunity level had fallen and I had leukemia and my lung was infected with what is called the Aspergillus fungus. Diabetes stays quiet for more than ten years only to attack all of a sudden.
Lee took antibiotics for six months, but was eventually forced to receive a lung vasectomy. This was in the late 90s when he was in his late fifties.
"After this I thought I got better and started drinking every now and then. I had to receive an even bigger operation".
In 2003, he coughed up blood during a TV drama filming session. The staff and other actors dissuaded him from working further on the set. Lee calmly replied that he would not step down with his character in the drama. When his character died in the drama, Lee was hospitalized and diagnosed with more lung illnesses. Lee received another lung vasectomy and now has only one third of his lung capacity.
A few months after the lung operation, he received a myocardial infarction operation. Myocardial infarction is another disease that often afflicts diabetes patients. Veins from Lee's knees were implanted in his heart to treat the disease.
After two major operations, Lee finally quit drinking and smoking. He now walks whenever possible and practices golf every day. He also receives two insulin shots a day.
"My father (Lee Jong-rok of late) won the Seventh Donga Marathon
and our family members are all healthy. I neglected to take care of my health. I am lucky that I was able to control my complications. I advise diabetes patients to quit drinking and smoking, listen to their doctors, and exercise regularly".