KIRA - Portraits of Diabetes

Kira Heck looking at the camera.


Type 2 diabetes - diagnosed 2014

Nobody has the right answer for you, unless you're one of those people who falls into the textbook definition of diabetes.

Kira Heck was just 19 years old when she found out she had type 2 diabetes.

In her Grade 12 year, Kira gained 60 pounds and was exhausted much of the time. Then, in her first year of classes at Concordia University in Edmonton, she developed large welts on her body. The symptom baffled six different specialists, who believed the welts may have been allergy related.

After six months, Kira was accurately diagnosed with hypothyroidism and while the welts started disappearing, the extreme lethargy remained. One of the doctors thought maybe she had narcolepsy. The delay of her type 2 diabetes diagnosis may have been because she was so young.

When the correct diagnosis was finally made, it not only surprised Kira, but also defied statistics. Type 2 diabetes is usually diagnosed later in life, often after the age of 40.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, all cases of diabetes in young people in the past were believed to be type 1, so much so that type 2 diabetes used to be called adult onset diabetes. But in the last two decades, with risk factors including ethnicity, being overweight and inactivity, the incidence of type 2 diabetes in children has increased dramatically.

After her diagnosis, Kira drastically changed her lifestyle.She went from rarely eating vegetables to trying to incorporate them into her diet every day, being more active and trying various medical treatments prescribed by doctors. Some medicines made her very ill, while others have been helpful in managing her blood sugar levels.

She works in a job that allows her to be active during the day and she tracks her daily exercise using a step counter. "My exercise specialist said, 'Park far away…' or 'Don't take the groceries in all in one load.' Like, do two loads because it's the extra walking," says Kira. "Just changing very small things about your life. Things that you wouldn't normally think about."

But even now, a few years after her diagnosis, she says management of her diabetes is not easy and is constantly shifting. Part of the problem is that it's a relatively new challenge for many doctors to navigate issues associated with type 2 diabetes specifically in young people. For example, there are challenges with helping women with type 2 diabetes maintain a healthy pregnancy, as research on this is relatively new. Kira would like to start a family, but finding support for her health issues has proven difficult.

To complicate matters even further, says Kira, there are varying levels of severity in type 2 diabetes, meaning that what will work for one person may not be effective for another. "Nobody has the right answer for you, unless you're one of those people who falls into the textbook [definition of diabetes]. So you have to … just do what makes you feel best," says Kira.

The Alberta Diabetes Institute brings together scientists from multiple disciplines in a collaborative fight against the complex disease of diabetes.

Photography: Richard Siemens Writer: Caroline Barlott Editor: Sasha Roeder Mah Creative Director: MJ Fell

KIRA & Dr Jessica Yue

Jessican Yue standing next to Kira, both smiling at the camera.