When Dalia Badrawi was diagnosed with latent type 1 diabetes at 26 years old, her life changed. Literally. There is little awareness in Egypt about diabetes until this day considering how prevalent the condition is (over 15 percent of the population has it), so it’s no surprise that when Badrawi first got diagnosed she was completely lost. But Badrawi was able to turn this deeply misunderstood condition to her benefit. She co-owns Cross-fit Engine 38 where she also trains, she’s a runner who has run several marathons where she raised funds for diabetes awareness and treatment in Egypt, and three years ago she discovered a new passion: mountaineering and outdoor adventuring. Her first peak was Mount Elbrus in Russia, dubbed the highest peak in Europe at 5,642 meters high.
When the opportunity first came around for Badrawi to climb Elbrus she got super excited; “I’m going to climb a mountain, I can do anything.” But then she had to share her decision with her family whose mixed reactions were mostly worried that it might be too dangerous for her to take this on as a diabetic. Both her parents voiced their concerns, and while her mother was not necessarily on board with it, her father was a tad more diplomatic. By the following morning, Badrawi woke up to find an email from her father with the subject ‘dangers of diabetes on mountain’. “My dad went online and started sending me all those crazy things that could happen – like how high altitude could affect blood sugar, how insulin can freeze, basically a lot of different scary worst-case scenarios,” Badrawi shares.
This is the one thing I promised myself since I was diagnosed: I'm never going to let diabetes stand in the way of anything I want to do.
This shook her resolve, and she went from being super excited to not talking about it at all. “Between me and myself, I started thinking maybe this isn't the best decision," she says. "Why should I put myself in a position where something could go wrong, where it could actually be dangerous for me? And all the doubts were diabetes-related. What if my blood sugar gets really high or really low and I pass out and no one can deal?” Slowly, she was convincing herself that she wasn't going to do this anymore. She then realized how frustrated she always was and the more she thought about it the more she realized that the only thing holding her back was diabetes. “I thought, if I don't go because of my diabetes it's going to be a problem. This is the one thing I promised myself since I was diagnosed: I'm never going to let diabetes stand in the way of anything I want to do.”
That's when she started doing her own research into how to go about this as a diabetic. “I thought maybe I could find someone who’s a diabetic who climbed Elbrus,” she recounts; instead, she found a whole community of T1D climbers. “It's basically everyone sharing their experiences, the glitches that happen, the equipment that they use, what worked and what didn't, and other very specific details as well. Everyone basically comparing notes.” She went in looking for at least one person who could help her through this and instead found a whole community, which gave her a whole other level of confidence.
Without turning this into a biology lesson, diabetes is basically your body not being able to produce insulin, which is a hormone created by the pancreas whose main job is to help the glucose in your body (which you get from the food you eat) get into your cells in order to produce energy. So when your body can’t produce enough insulin, this whole system goes out of whack, causing your blood sugar levels to rise. Now there are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 (or T1D), which Badrawi has, is the more intense kind of diabetes where your immune system attacks the insulin that is produced, so you have to inject it for yourself. Type 2 (or T2D), the more common type of diabetes, is where your body just doesn't produce enough insulin. In terms of management, T1D is more challenging because you have to constantly check and be aware of your blood sugar levels and you basically live on insulin injections. “I knew I was going to be in this really cold weather and I would be wearing layers and layers of clothing but I have to keep checking my blood sugar,” she explains. So Badrawi reached out to the community of T1D climbers to find answers about how to carry the insulin and keep it from freezing how to check your blood sugar in cold weather.
To make sure that everyone on the hike with her was aware of her condition and what needs to be done, she gave them a mini awareness presentation on diabetes. She explained what diabetes is and what they should expect and be prepared for in case she passes out, and explained about everything she had in her bag and what to do when her blood sugar got low or if it got high. She fondly recalls how in awe she was of the support she received from her fellow climbers; “usually when you’re on your water break you’re in your own little world and you’re super tired and so cold, but everyone would actually come, hustle around me and spend the rest of their very little rest time with me in order to help me check my blood sugar and make sure I don't need insulin. For me, this was so special to get this kind of support from people. And it really bonds you.”
Forget all the physical stuff, the altitude or the challenge, in the end all I remember is how breathtaking it all was.
The whole trip lasted 10 days and the climb to reach the summit took eight, and in the end all the preparation was worth it. “Forget all the physical stuff, the altitude or the challenge, in the end all I remember is how breathtaking it all was. Throughout the whole experience I was always overwhelmed with how beautiful and peaceful it was," Badrawi recalls. "You're so disconnected from everything and it was the first time where I felt at peace. I wasn't thinking about any issues or any problems or even any good things, I was only thinking about was the present and my next step. That's all you think about, which is really soothing.”The climb, however, didn’t come without its challenges. “Weather conditions can work against you and you have to make sure to stay safe like any other climb. I know that there were people with us who had tried to summit Elbrus before and couldn’t.” It might not be one of the most dangerous climbs but you still have to be careful and listen to your guides, who teach you how to stay safe if anything happens and how to stop yourself if you start sliding. “But if you're in control and you're confident, it's not going to be a problem. It's not crazy dangerous but there are moments when you have to be careful.”
“On summit day you couldn't see 50 meters ahead of you," she recounts. "It was really windy with a lot of snow and there was fog so when we got to the summit we couldn't even see the view, but the sense of achievement is amazing because it's really exhausting. I remember just wanting someone to bring me a bed.” But alas they had to keep moving and get back down before the weather got worse, so they took their picture and off they went again. “I didn't know if I could make it back down. I mean you know how long it took you to get up there, but you feel so good once you arrive at the bottom and once you're done," Badrawi reminisces. "You think, wow, what was that...”
It's like having a baby and then you forget the pain of giving birth. I really forgot the pain.
The spark of adventure first ignited in Badrawi when her brother came back from summiting Kilimanjaro and shared his experience with her. Since then, Kilimanjaro was been the mountain she wanted to summit first, but it’s going to be her second as she’s planning on climbing it at the end of this year. “After talking about my experience with Elbrus I’m remembering everything. It's like having a baby and then you forget the pain of giving birth. I really forgot that I was actually really tired. I was confident even the first time I did it so I still feel this way now, but sometimes the unknown is better," Badrawi says. "When I ran my first marathon I was much more relaxed than when I ran my second. Going at it for the first time you really don’t know what to expect, you think ‘Let’s see where this takes me.’ Going at it the second time, I know the pain and I know what it's going to feel like, so I’m more nervous about certain things. But I’m super excited. And it's really beautiful so I'm really excited about that too. And I'm going to summit on new year's day if all goes well.”
For a while now, Badrawi has been trying to be more open and vocal about her experience living with T1D and uses her platform to try to raise some much-needed awareness about this chronic condition. She says that ever since she started doing that she's been getting a lot of messages from people sharing how they aren't able to cope with it at all because they're not receiving the guidance, education, and support they need. “I get a lot of messages from people who are ashamed of having diabetes and who don't share their condition with anyone, people who are having issues getting married because the other family won’t accept someone who has diabetes," Badrawi shares. "It only shows you how much awareness is lacking. The assumptions that are made about what it is to have T1D are so wrong.” Living with T1D can be very challenging and in order to befriend the condition you have to understand it first, but health care providers in Egypt only scratch the surface with their patients. “No one gives you the information or the support you need to deal with it," Badrawi laments. "T1D is a lifelong condition, you need to deeply understand it in order to control it.”
Badrawi felt empowered when she ran her first marathon after her diagnosis, and again after climbing Elbrus; “that for me was when I felt that I really can do anything and diabetes is never going to get in the way – on the contrary, maybe it's because of my diabetes that I’m doing all this," she shares. "It’s pushing me to push back and live my life more fully. I kind of don't let fear stand in the way of me trying new things.”
When she was younger, Badrawi wasn't as adventurous as she is now, and when asked why she thinks she's more adventurous now her matter-of-fact response was: “Diabetes, for sure. It started with the marathon. There was a turning point when I really started to take control of my diabetes. I was feeling like a victim and I was feeling really low and like I’ll be living with an illness. But I let go of that and I took control. I started to get into sports and then took the decision to run my first marathon, that was the turning point. I thought to myself, screw diabetes. I am going to do the big things. That's the thing that pushed me, so, in a funny way, I'm grateful for it.”
Photos courtesy of Dalia Badrawi.