Ricky Callan reflects upon his life as a diabetic

Ricky Callan is battling diabetes with humour but his lessons are deadly serious. Picture: Danny Lawson
Ricky Callan is battling diabetes with humour but his lessons are deadly serious. Picture: Danny Lawson
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WITH half a leg missing and kidneys that recently packed up and left him desperately ill in hospital, it might be assumed that comedian and actor Ricky Callan doesn’t really have that much to laugh at.

After all, he’s battled diabetes for half his life and its impact has been dramatic, from damaging his career to shattering his relationship, it dominates what he eats, how he lives and, with endless trips to clinics and daily medication to pop, it takes over almost every moment of his day.

Look to the future and Ricky, whose television credits include Taggart, Still Game, Monarch of the Glen and Rab C Nesbitt, admits what lies ahead is a depressing prospect.

Just as well that the one thing diabetes hasn’t robbed him of is his ability to keep smiling through.

“I call my prosthetic my ‘pathetic limb’,” he jokes, adding that he’s ruled himself out of auditioning for Doctor Who, fairly confident that the new time-travelling hero won’t be a one-legged stand-up comic and actor with diabetes from Leith.

“You’ve got to laugh,” he shrugs, “what else can you do? This crap is here, it’s definitely outstayed its welcome, I’ve asked it to leave, but there’s not a lot I can do about it. Might as well try to keep going.”

Of course, Scotland’s increasing battle with type 2 diabetes means Ricky is far from alone. There are almost quarter of a million Scots with diabetes, the majority of them – around 217,500 people – have type 2 diabetes, the form of the disease which can be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle.

Silent and potentially deadly, there are two-and-a-half times the number of Scots with diabetes than cancer, and it affects more than cardiovascular disease. According to Diabetes UK Scotland’s State of the Nation report – launched this week to mark Diabetes Week – 35 people per every 1000 living in the Lothians are affected.

It points out that every 30 minutes someone is diagnosed with diabetes, with the expectation that figures will continue to rise thanks to our unhealthy lifestyles.

Ricky, who’d battled his weight since childhood, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes when he was 25 years old, just after having watched a television medical drama featuring a character with classic diabetes symptom of a persistent, raging thirst and realising he was experiencing the same.

It was 1986, when advice and support was thin on the ground and Ricky – probably like most 25-year olds – didn’t give his diabetes that much attention.

“I didn’t manage it,” he recalls, “I didn’t treat it the way I should but the problem with diabetes is that eventually it comes up and bites you on the bum. I thought diabetes was all about injecting yourself and not being able to eat sweets, that was it.

“It’s easy to write off because you can’t feel it, it’s not growing on the end of your nose, it’s not giving you pain and you don’t think that it’s going to affect your kidneys, your eyes, your limbs, that you could end up with an amputation, heart failure, all these things.”

In 2004, he developed a blister on his foot as the result of poorly fitting shoes which failed to heal – a common problem for diabetics. As the infection crept up his leg, doctors had no option but to remove first some toes and when that didn’t stop the infection, his lower left leg.

The surgery was traumatic enough. He then had to learn to walk with a prosthetic limb while the stress of living with the condition and his new disability had another side effects: soon his marriage had collapsed and his acting career stalled.

“No-one wants some disabled bloke on their set,” he points out, “so there’s always an excuse not to give you the part. They’ll say they wanted someone with long hair or someone taller or shorter, but really it’s usually just a way of saying they don’t want a bloke with one leg that’s hard to insure. In the end, I just pretty much gave up.”

There were more than 1350 diabetes-related amputations in Scotland last year, of which diabetes experts say 80 per cent are avoidable. Diabetes UK Scotland also points out the NHS in Scotland spends £1bn a year on managing diabetes patients, most of which is spent on avoidable complications.

It’s believed that while 50,000 people currently have diabetes but are undiagnosed, a further 500,000 are at risk of developing the disease.

The thought that many of them might simply accept the diagnosis and take their medication without making drastic lifestyle changes has prompted Ricky, now 51, to focus his attention on writing a book about his experiences. It will be entitled – with typical black humour – My Foot Left.

“I feel there’s a lot about this illness that isn’t spoken about,” adds Ricky, who recently ended up in a high dependency ward after his kidneys failed – another complication of his condition. “There’s a head-in-the-sand attitude and people think they can take their tablets and it fixes it. They avoid going to diabetes clinics because they don’t like someone sitting there preaching at them about what to eat and that they should lose weight.

“But they have to realise diabetes is still there. They might be okay now but in ten years’ time they might be just like me.”

• Further information from Diabetes UK Scotland, www.diabetes.org.uk, 0845 120 2960