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Dallas Retirement Village resident Bob Dornhecker, 86, received the Joslin Diabetes Center's Victory Medal for surviving 75 years with Type 1 diabetes. Only 61 people worldwide are known to have acoomplished that feat.
February 12, 2013
DALLAS -- Bob Dornhecker spent a good portion of his childhood thinking he would eventually succumb to blindness, kidney failure, or have to suffer a leg amputation.
When he was just 11 years old, Dornhecker was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
That was 75 years ago.
Dornhecker, now 86 and a resident of Dallas Retirement Village (DRV), said the doctor who diagnosed him didn't give him much hope for his future, saying he could suffer a major setback in just 10 years.
The knowledge that his life could end or change drastically in his early 20s was never far from his mind. Dornhecker only knew of one other person who had diabetes and she died at a young age.
"That was the picture I had of diabetes," he said. "Growing up with that image and the fact that by the time I was 20 I would be blind or lose a leg, I didn't have much (of a) future to think about."
It seemed his mother had other ideas. Dornhecker said she was an attentive caretaker, making sure he was faithful to his specialized diet and was meticulous in making sure his reusable syringes were clean -- there was no such thing as a disposal syringe at the time.
"I was blessed with a mother who took real good care of me," Dornhecker said.
Still, the disease was difficult to manage. There was no easy way to test blood sugar at the time -- no monitors or test strips -- just a cumbersome urine analysis. Eating only a specialized diet, he was embarrassed to eat lunch at school because he had to be served separately.
He also was told that he couldn't participate in sports. Dornhecker did anyway -- at first on a baseball team and community basketball teams.
"I was going to show them I could do it," he said.
That was the beginning of his lifelong pattern of defying the odds.
Then, when he was 20, Dornhecker saw a diabetes specialist working in Portland who dramatically changed his perspective on the disease.
"He said `You're a person, you have diabetes, but you are not a diabetic,'" Dornhecker recalled. "One of the first things he got through to me was the idea that a person with diabetes can live as long or longer as a person who doesn't because they will take better care of themselves.
"So here I am 86 years old. I've been on insulin since age 11. I proved him right."
After seeing the specialist, Dornhecker decided to live with the disease, not as a victim of it.
Just 20 days before his 21st birthday, Dornhecker married his wife, Frances, and within a few years had two children, a boy and a girl. Dornhecker worked for Del Monte Foods until he was 55 years old, then they moved to a 25-acre ranch off Pioneer Road in Dallas to enjoy retirement.
He and Frances are still married.
"She was one of my real blessings in life," Dornhecker said, adding she was another reason he was able to stay so healthy for so long.
Dornhecker -- who never suffered any of the calamities his doctors predicted for him as a child -- was honored Friday by the Joslin Diabetes Center for living with Type 1 diabetes for 75 years. He is one of only 61 people worldwide to achieve the milestone.
He was presented with a 75-year medal during a ceremony at DRV attended by his friends and family. He adds the medal to the 50-year award he was given 25 years ago.
His daughter, Sylvia Stock of Sweet Home, said the key to her father's longevity is an "incredible self-discipline and a commitment to living his life fully."
"He's a wonderful example of how obstacles can be overcome and you actually flourish as a result of the challenges you face," she added.
Dornhecker said he doesn't mind the attention his achievement has received -- not because he desires to be recognized, but so he can tell others not to think of Type 1 diabetes as a debilitating condition.
"If I had known when I was a kid that I would live to 86 years old ... I would have shouted to the roof tops," Dornhecker said.
"At that age I was just terminal. Now I can let people know that you can have a full life and do all kinds of work and have children. I want people to know that because I went through a good part of my life thinking I was something less than a person."