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22nd January 2021

TAKING A HAMMER TO DIABETES

“With or without diabetes, there’s nothing you can’t be,” says German field hockey Olympic champion and orthopaedic surgeon Carsten Fischer. But there was a time when Carsten – nicknamed The Man With the Hammer for his ferocious penalty corners – thought his dream of winning an Olympic gold might have been gone forever.

As a member of the German national field hockey team, Carsten was training hard in the summer of 1991. He and his team had won silver in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics in LA and Seoul and had their sights set on gold in the 1991 European championships. But Carsten developed some unusual symptoms.

“I was very thirsty and had lost 4 or 5 kg,” he told This Is MedTech. “I just thought the thirst was due to the warm weather and the weight loss to my training.” Blood tests told another story, however. Carsten’s blood sugar was four to five times the normal range. It was not the infection or liver problems that Carsten suspected, but type 1 diabetes.

“I was in shock,” Carsten admits. “I thought my sports career was finished because of diabetes. But my doctors told me it would be no problem: they would check me out and prescribe a therapy.”

This therapy came in the form of an insulin pen. With type 1 diabetes, Carsten’s body wasn’t producing enough of the hormone insulin, which controls blood sugar. And with the pen came renewed hopes of playing in the Bundesliga system and perhaps later in the national team.

With the help of his insulin injections and blood monitoring, Carsten resumed his training. After 10 years, he embraced advancements in technology, moving to an insulin pump, which he continues to wear today. These portable devices are worn day and night, delivering insulin in the layer of fat just under the skin.

“The pump was much better,” Carsten explains. “It works the whole time. During hockey games or training I would turn it off – I could play hockey for 70–80 minutes without a problem.”

Carsten also now uses a ‘flash glucose monitoring system’, which comprises a sensor worn on the arm and a reader that can be swiped over it to measure sugar levels without the need for regular finger-prick tests.

With the management of his diabetes in hand, Carsten and the German hockey team won the 1991 European championships and went on to win gold at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Over this period Carsten also pursued his medical career, which he continues today.

“It is normal today, as it was in the 1990s, that people with diabetes are able to play sport at a high level. I have also managed my whole working life as an orthopaedic physician and surgeon with the pump and the insulin pen, never once having had a low-sugar episode during an operation,” Carsten explains.

“People with diabetes are able to live as other people do,” he stresses. “Importantly, there is nothing that you can’t be: an Olympian, a world champion or a European champion. You can manage this disease and manage your profession. It is no different, whether you have diabetes or not.”