Singer lost sight due to diabetic eating disorder

Sarah Caltieri paid a heavy price for failing to take her insulin. Picture: Toby Williams
Sarah Caltieri paid a heavy price for failing to take her insulin. Picture: Toby Williams
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SHE was a typical headstrong teenager who dreamed of a life in the limelight. Despite a diabetes diagnosis at seven years old, Sarah Caltieri refused to let anything derail her singing ambitions – not even a life-threatening illness.

But as a high school student she had no idea the result of youthful stubbornness would ultimately leave her blind.

Fixated on her goal of “making it” in showbiz, the talented vocalist began skipping insulin shots in a bid to lose weight.

“Eventually there were periods of time where I didn’t inject insulin at all and could lose up to half a stone a day,” said Sarah, now 34. Just as most of her friends were graduating university, the consequences of Sarah’s teenage rebellion came back to haunt her, with tests revealing damage to her kidneys and eyes.

Before surgery could be scheduled she lost her sight aged 22 – both eyes in less than a week.

A decade on, Sarah has beaten all the odds to make good on her childhood dreams and hopes her new album launch will raise awareness of her condition. She is collaborating with producer Duncan Cameron and hopes to complete her debut record in the comings months before a setting off on whirlwind tour across Scotland and the UK.

But Sarah, who lives in Leith, will never shirk her determination to highlight the dangers of the little-knowndiabetic eating disorder that changed her life but remains unnamed.

At seven, Sarah fell into a diabetic coma that nearly killed her. Doctors told her parents – who kept vigil at her bedside – that her life hanged in the 
balance.

After two never-ending days, she came to. Sarah was packed off home with a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, diet sheets, needles and strict instructions not to eat sugary foods.

With her body unable to create insulin – needed for the body to absorb enough glucose from the blood to create energy – the youngster would have to rely on injections for the rest of her life. Her childhood would now be regimented by a host of rules of set meal times, weighing food portions and avoiding sweets.

“It was a struggle to get it under control when I first came out of hospital,” she said.

“As a child I felt quite isolated when I was the only one who wasn’t allowed birthday cake or sweets at parties.”

She kept on top of her medication but the pressures of high school meant the rebellious teenager was lurking just around the corner. Like many girls her age, Sarah began flirting with alcohol and cigarettes which would send her blood glucose levels soaring.

But as performing became more of a career aspiration, she also became more body-conscious. She started fixating on what she was eating and her size, and went from a “healthy weight” to seriously ill.

“I became obsessed with body image and just became a teenager. With my hormones all over the place, and having to control diabetes and teenage life, unfortunately I started to develop symptoms of anorexia,” she said.

“I started dieting and losing weight. I lost a stone healthily but didn’t stop and was obsessively exercising, then the binges started. Eventually I figured out how to manipulate my insulin and realised that if I stopped taking it, food would go straight through me.”

Aged 17, she reduced her prescribed five injections a day to just one every few days.

Depleted insulin levels meant what little she did eat couldn’t properly be broken down, leading to dangerously steep weight loss.

“I was completely oblivious to the damage I was doing to my body. My blood sugars were off the scale. I was a walking zombie, I could barely function.

“I was good at hiding it from my family, I just pretended my blood sugar was too high. Really what I was doing was killing myself.

“With an eating disorder, all you’re interested in is losing weight, the consequences don’t even register. It’s a mental illness but no-one recognised it.”

Sarah’s education suffered and her life-long dreams of making it to drama school fell by the wayside as she struggled to get by each day.

After months of declining health, she visited a clinic before her GP eventually referred her to psychologist to “unravel the mess”. She re-learned old habits. She learned how to be diabetic again.

A few years later, well down the road to recovery, she received bombshell news that her kidneys and eyes had been damaged. Sarah was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy in both eyes – extra blood vessels that grow because of poor blood flow in the existing ones.

Before she could undergo surgery, her left eye haemorrhaged. Doctors hoped to save the other but within four days the right eye followed and Sarah lost her vision. “I lost it all in just under a week,” she said. “It was absolutely horrendous. I put myself through all of that and now I’ve gone blind. I just thought I don’t know if I can live.

“I lost my job, my driving licence, everything I’d ever known, I had to start from scratch again. It was like learning walk again. I had to learn how to go out using a cane, be independent. The main thing I had to re-learn was confidence. It’s scary being out in the big wide world with no vision.”

About a year later, while she was still undergoing operations, she was told about a part in a play and decided to audition in her home town of Leeds. She landed the lead role and has “never looked back”, moving to the Capital five years ago after falling in love with the city.

Sarah made her professional début in the stage musical The Threepenny Opera and has since appeared in numerous plays – including some on the Fringe – but this will be her first studio album. “It has always been a dream of mine,” she said of the album. “A lot of the songs on there, I wrote a few years ago, They are quite autobiographical and tell my story.”

She wants to use her plight as a way of highlighting the condition and does a lot of work for Scottish charity Diabetics With Eating Disorders.

Sarah relentlessly campaigns for her condition to be properly recognised, with the backing of blind MSP Dennis Robertson.

“This eating disorder has not been given a proper diagnosis or name by the medical profession but sadly it is a worldwide thing,” she said. “Without this, it’s really difficult to try and raise awareness of it and get people to listen. We need funding from the government to train people to know how to deal with it and for special clinics to be opened.

“It’s as huge as anorexia or bulimia but because it’s not been given an official name, people don’t hear about it.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, my blindness was down to the diabetic eating disorder. I feel like I’m very lucky to come through what I have done. I’m a very happy person now and I feel like I need to help other people in any way I can. There is light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a lot of hard work but you can get through it.”

kate.pickles@edinburghnews.com