Diabetes led to Giles Turnbull going blind, needing a kidney transplant and brain cancer, but he says he has no regrets. Catherine Scott reports.
Giles Turnbull was just 13 and at high school in Harrogate when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
He admits that it was the worst possible time and as a teenager he didn’t look after his health properly, with dire consequences for him in later life.
“I didn’t monitor my blood sugar levels properly. I think as a teenager you think you are pretty invincible,” recalls Giles. “I know all my problems since have been self-inflicted.”
After studying chemistry at Swansea University, he moved to London and then Bristol which is where his sight started to fail.
“I was the first person in my family to go to university,” explains Giles, now 46.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career back then, but after graduating in 1994 I worked for the DVLA before moving to London and working for the Department for Transport and then Bristol.
“The sight in my left eye failed first,” he continues. “At that time I could still see well enough to drive but I could fall down stairs and kerbs because I didn’t realise there was a drop.”
He then met a girl, fell in love and moved to Atlanta in the United States to be with her.
“Unfortunately my right eye followed suit and by 2008 I was legally blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy.
“You learn to listen to things and pay attention to the textures you’re feeling with your fingertips or beneath your feet.” Giles’s company was taken over, he was made redundant and his marriage failed.
But, he says, he was lucky that he was in America.
“The Department of Labor referred me for a year of vision rehab training, where I learned how to use a white cane, how to label things and read braille. That was fantastic. As an adult in the UK I wouldn’t have got anything like that.”
But that wasn’t where Giles’s problems ended as his kidneys had started to fail. In 2012 he was placed on dialysis in the US.
“I thought that was going to be the end of me, and that I would be dead by 40,” he says. “I thought as a blind person on my own I just couldn’t handle the dialysis, but then I was told there were two types of dialysis. They put me on peritoneal dialysis which uses the inside lining of your abdomen as the filter, rather than a machine.”
But this still caused problems due to Giles’s sight issues and he ended up with peritonitis. His parents travelled to the US to help him, but in the end it became clear that he needed to return to the UK where he had a kidney and pancreas transplant, although the pancreas had to be removed.
But even this wasn’t an end to Giles’s problems. As a complication of the transplant he developed brain lymphoma and had to had chemo and radiotherapy.
“From the July to the November I can’t remember anything, I was conscious but I can’t remember a thing,” he says.
Having survived all that Giles decided that it was time for him to follow his dream of becoming a writer and he returned to the university he had attended all those years before in Swansea, but this time to study to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing and continue his passion for poetry.
“I had considered going into sheltered accommodation but then after the brain cancer I decided to go back to university instead. I had always loved writing, especially poetry from being at school.
“I started writing during my A-levels because I liked this girl, but I was writing about the fact that she didn’t fancy me. Writing lets me explore the memories that I remember when I was sighted.”
He came away with a distinction and is currently working on his first anthology of poems, after having had some of his poems published after winning a competition.
He is also working on a novel, based on a piece of writing he did for his dissertation.
“Swansea University’s Transcription Centre has been vital to my success this time around. All of the books that I’ve needed were produced in electronic format so that my computer could read them aloud for me.
Having gone full circle at the university as both an undergraduate and now postgraduate student, Giles is looking forward to what the future holds.
And he has a powerful message to anyone else who might be thinking of starting or returning to university whatever their disability might be.
“I came back to rebuild my confidence,” said Giles.
“Being back on a campus where I had so many fond memories as a sighted student, has been absolutely wonderful.
“It is not easy, and everyone’s level of independence varies when you are blind.
“Some people may be very confident in getting around, but then there are others like me, who have lost their sight in middle age, who might struggle.
“I think the important thing is not being afraid to ask for help. There is so much help out there and you can make so much more of your life if you just ask.”
Life can still be a struggle as he remains diabetic and being blind makes treatment more complicated although he does have technology that helps.
“I didn’t test my levels properly for 20 years because it is difficult to do a finger prick test when you can’t see. But now I have an app on my phone that helps me and a special device for delivering the insulin. I know my problems have been self-inflicted because I didn’t look after myself properly, but I have no regrets. Being blind means I see the world very differently.”