The rise of diabetes in Singapore has had one silver lining for Heng Pei Yan, a 28-year-old woman diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 10.

“The awareness has increased across the country, and people have become more accepting, even curious about what’s it’s like to live with the condition,” she says.

One lingering misconception, Pei Yan adds, is that people with diabetes cannot eat anything sweet. “That’s not true. We can eat everything. We just need to mind the quantity and adjust our insulin accordingly.”

Pei Yan’s diagnosis in 1996 came somewhat as a surprise. She used to experience excessive thirst but had no other obvious diabetes symptoms. The big hint was the invasion of ants around the toilet at home, attracted to the high sugar content in her urine.

It was not an easy journey, especially during her teenage years. “Back in high school and even university, I often skipped my lunchtime injections. I refused to deal with it, or to be inconvenienced by it. Sometimes I would just plain forget,” she confesses.

She was in denial. Even though the injections and blood glucose testing had become part of her daily routine, she still could not accept the fact that she was burdened by this non-communicable disease. “I was using inconvenience as an excuse to neglect my care,” she recalls.

An overseas diabetes training becomes a turning point

Her doctor encouraged Pei Yan to take more glucose readings, but the motivation never lasted. Then, in 2013, Pei Yan was nominated by the Association of Diabetes Educators Singapore (ADES) to participate in a 4-day Young Leaders in Diabetes training programme in Melbourne, Australia.

This event, organised by the International Diabetes Federation, was an eye-opener for Pei Yan. “I felt encouraged and inspired by the stories I heard and decided to work more closely with my doctor to achieve better control of my type 2 diabetes,” she says.

Pei Yan saw how quickly her condition improved with regular glucose readings. On 25 August 2014, she was started on an insulin pump, which eliminated the need for her to self-inject insulin many times a day.

An insulin pump is a device that delivers a continuous subcutaneous infusion of quick-acting insulin at any time of the day. It may be an option for patients like Pei Yan, who are highly motivated and proficient in self-managing their diabetes. Very regular glucose monitoring and carbohydrate counting remain essential.

Enjoying life and helping others

“When I considered switching to an insulin pump, I was mainly concerned by how it was going to interfere with the activities I love, especially scuba diving,” says Pei Yan.

“As the pump is attached to the body, would it become a hindrance? Would I risk damaging it? In the case of scuba diving, I had to work closely with my diabetes healthcare team to work out all the precautions, but essentially, yes, I can still enjoy this activity.”

The Young Leaders in Diabetes programme also motivated Pei Yan to initiate a project benefitting people living with diabetes in Singapore.

She started a Facebook group called SGDoc (SG stands for Singapore and Doc for diabetes online community). “It’s a safe discussion platform that’s open to all, including the families of people with diabetes. So if someone struggle with any aspect of their diabetes management, such as eating out, travel, breaking the news to people, social pressures and work demands – just to give a few examples – I hope they will consider joining us,” says Pei Yan.

Fact Sheet on Heng Pei Yan
Personal data: 28, single
Occupation :Full-time maths and science teacher and part-time master’s degree student
Hobbies :Volunteering as a nature guide, open water diving and blogging about Singapore’s marine biodiversity
Fun fact :Her insulin pump has a name and blogs on Facebook. Sample entry: “I'm going for a performance by the Dim Sum Dollies. My first time in the theatre. Hope I don't beep in the middle of the show.”

​What are your best 3 ​tips for people who have diabetes?

  1. Make diabetes management a fun thing to do.

    I gave my pump a name – Conus aspartinus -- and created a blog where it shares about the adventures it goes on with me, such as holidays. I took the idea from my friend in New Zealand. She named her pump Dobby, like the house-elf in Harry Potter.

  2. Enjoy your favourite foods but eat in moderation.

    Think of high-carb or high-sugar foods as an occasional treat. When you eat out, watch out for the portion size. Carb count can be tricky when you can’t weigh the food or you don’t know what went in the dish.

  3. Remember that diabetes management is not just about numbers.

    We all have our ups and downs. You may drop an expensive glucose test strip on the floor, or get your pump tubing caught in something. Better joke about it. Don’t get too upset when you get a high reading on your glucose meter. It takes a long time to figure out how to best manage your diabetes. Don’t give up.​

Ref: R14