Tangled and Intertwined: Diabetes and Covid-19

A while back I started a blogpost with the words “tangled” and “intertwined.” The emotions prompting those words were powerful but I abandoned the post in favor of laziness.

Last Saturday I “attended” a virtual session at Friends for Life Orlando titled “Avoiding and Overcoming Diabetes Burnout.” The moderators were William Polonsky, PhD, CDE and Kerri Sparling. Partway through the session Kerri mentioned something about her diabetes and coronavirus being iinseparable and I thought “yes!” That is what I had originally been planning to write about. No doubt if Kerri were still blogging, she would say it better than I will, but we likely have the same thoughts muddling through our brains.

A lot of my musings go back to late January when I began using Dexcom G6 and Basal IQ on my Tandem X2 pump followed by Control IQ. I was on Control IQ for less than six weeks when the coronavirus invaded my world. For those of you not knowledgeable about diabetes tech, Control IQ is defined by Tandem Diabetes:

ControlIQ technology is an advanced hybrid closed-loop system that uses an algorithm to automatically adjust insulin in response to predicted glucose levels to help increase time in the American Diabetes Association-recommended target range (70-180 mg/dL).

I wrote a couple of blogposts about my early experiences with Control IQ and I don’t think that my opinions have changed a lot since the March post titled “Six Weeks: More Thoughts on Control IQ.” I am mostly okay with it and really appreciate the fact that I have almost zero low blood sugars. But my average blood sugar is higher than pre-Control IQ and I am frustrated that I am required to use Tandem’s conservative BG goals instead of the targets that I prefer. In general I am still trying to figure out how to lower my average blood sugar without constant suspensions of insulin that result in sticky highs later on. Some people on Facebook seem to do that successfully and post daily graphs that don’t make sense to me based on my experiences. At a late May appointment I questioned my endocrinologist on whether she had any suggestions, and she said “No. Control IQ is doing what it is supposed to do and you are doing great.”

And she is right. But diabetes is never independent of mental health and I struggle to accept the new numbers when I liked the old numbers and don’t completely understand the new numbers. But the old numbers reflected many low blood sugars and a lot of glucose tabs. At the same time the new numbers don’t display what I think the Sleep Mode of Control IQ should target. I have never experienced classical diabetes burnout but my diabetes is mucked up with anxiety, perfection, lack of perfection, unattainable goals, and just plain never-getting-a-vacation.

In the last paragraph I introduced “mental health.” Enter Coronavirus. I am 68 years old and have lived with diabetes for 43 years. I consider myself to be healthy but I deal with multitude autoimmune conditions. If I get diagnosed with Covid-19, I am probably doomed. But who knows? My self-destructive side just wants to get the virus and be done with it. Either die or hopefully recover with ongoing immunity. But don’t get worried. I am not attending Covid-19 parties and have recently started using InstaCart for grocery and Costco deliveries. 

But like every other person in the world, I mourn my former life. I miss fitness classes at the YMCA and reminisce about hanging out at McDonald’s drinking cheap Diet Coke while surfing the web and writing blogposts. I miss going to the movies. I long for lunch and coffee with friends. I desperately want to visit my Maryland grandchildren and currently accept the risk of outdoor babysitting the local grandkids. I am okay most days but about once a week I wake up with a black cloud over my head.

The black cloud is part coronavirus and part diabetes-Control IQ. I can’t untangle what is what and for sure I haven’t figured out a way to eliminate the occasional days that are plagued with pit-in-the-stomach sadness and frustration. I am totally cognizant of the fact that 42+ things influence blood sugar and that I will never be a “Perfect Diabetic.” I am fine most days but the wind periodically blows in black clouds that suffocate my normally optimistic view of life. 

I am sad. I am frustrated.

I am healthy. I am mostly happy.

I know that I live a privileged life. I have no worries about acquiring insulin, CGM sensors, and pump supplies. I have access to online fitness and yoga classes and live near safe walking trails. My husband is employed and at the moment we are safe financially. My children have jobs and their families are doing relatively well considering the stress of home schooling and few daycare resources. 

But when the black clouds park above my psyche, I can’t tell whether they are the result of diabetes or Covid-19.

It doesn’t matter.

In my world diabetes and Covid-19 are tangled and intertwined. 

Tandem Occlusion Alarms: The Last Post

I started using a Tandem t:slim X2 insulin pump in December 2016 and immediately began having occlusion alarms once or twice a week. I had never had occlusions in 12+ years of pumping with Medtronic and Animas and quickly discovered that the vast majority of these Tandem alarms were false. All I had to do was dismiss the alarm, resume insulin, and go about my day. I can count on one hand the number of times that the occlusions were real and required a cartridge and infusion set change. It takes more than one hand to count the times that I had an embarrassing blaring alarm in awkward situations such as the movies, yoga class, and restaurants.

If you do an online search for Tandem Occlusion Alarms, you will be linked to some of my older blogposts. People still contact me with questions about their occlusion problems and I figured it was time to update my experiences and thoughts.

Although some of my previous blogposts suggested that I had fixed the problem, I never found a permanent solution to false occlusion alarms with some of my X2 pumps. I was fortunate that I wasn’t someone who had multiple alarms a day requiring cartridge and infusion set changes. The alarms were annoying and I mostly learned to live with them. Occasionally I called Tandem out of frustration but after a while they had nothing new to tell me and no real solutions.

If you notice in the last paragraph I say “some of my X2 pumps.” I am on my fifth pump in 3-1/2 years. My first pump had occlusion alarms starting the first week and was eventually replaced due to a failed battery. The second pump did not have a single occlusion alarm during the month that I used it, but the t:button was defective. The third pump had lots of occlusion alarms and was replaced for that reason. The fourth pump had one to two occlusion alarms per week and I gave up on solving the problem. 

But then….

In January 2020 I started using Dexcom G6 and wanted to install the newest Basal IQ update. It was determined that I had one of the older pumps with software that was incompatible with the Basal IQ and Control IQ updates. So I got another replacement pump. Amazingly several months went by with no occlusion alarms. I didn’t change anything in my behavior, cartridge use, or infusion set type. Through luck of the draw I finally had a pump that was not prone to false occlusion alarms. In the last 6+ months I have had 3 occlusion alarms all probably attributable to bunched up tubing during a mealtime bolus. 

I have long believed that some Tandem pumps are more prone to occlusion alarms than others. Is it an overly sensitive sensor or a less than robust motor? I’m not an engineer and have no idea. I have more than once been annoyed by people online being virtuous that they aren’t getting occlusion alarms and that I must be doing something wrong. Some times I felt as though Tandem techs blamed me.

No, maybe it was just the pump.

If you’re dealing with occlusion alarms, the best place to start might be with some of the “best practices” recommended by Tandem support techs and other X2 users on Facebook. Some helped me, some didn’t, and some I refused to do.

Things to try:

  1. Use the case
  2. Don’t carry the pump in your pocket
  3. Keep the tubing outstretched while a bolus is delivering
  4. Change your cartridge every 3 days
  5. Use TruSteel infusion sets
  6. Use insulin types approved for Tandem pumps
  7. Document everything and work with your local rep to get a replacement pump
  8. Just accept occlusion alarms, restart insulin, and move on

I don’t necessarily do all of those things and some of them made no difference in the number of my occlusion alarms. With only one to two alarms a week, I got very good at #8 and just lived with the alarms. I currently wear my pump on my waistband with a Nite Ize clip and use TruSteel infusion sets with Novolog insulin. But that’s what I did with the 3rd and 4th pumps that had lots of occlusion alarms. I dislike the size and weight of the case and don’t use it. I don’t change my cartridge every three days although I change my infusion set every two days. I rarely hold the tubing straight during a bolus.

So I live with a mixture of best practices and bad practices. I used to get a lot of occlusion alarms and now I don’t.

What changed?

The pump.

*********

I hope that this blogpost is my last discussion of occlusion alarms. If you’re interested, here are previous posts on the subject:

https://testguessandgo.com/2017/02/21/a-review-of-the-tandem-tslim-x2/

https://testguessandgo.com/2017/03/20/winning-the-battle-with-tandem-occlusion-alarms/

https://testguessandgo.com/2017/05/24/a-5-month-review-of-the-tandem-tslim-x2/

https://testguessandgo.com/2018/07/26/tandem-occlusion-alarms-an-engineering-experiment/

https://testguessandgo.com/2018/07/30/tandem-occlusion-alarms-crying-uncle/

https://testguessandgo.com/2018/08/07/thank-you-tandem-a-replacement-pump/

Six Weeks: More Thoughts on Control IQ

This is not a “How-To” for Control IQ. I haven’t completely figured it out and for sure I can’t provide much guidance for other people using the system. I think that each of us will have to find a way to succeed (or fail?) with this algorithm and what works for me might not work for you. In fact my road to success probably won’t work for you. Actually at the moment it is not completely working for me. But it is getting better.

I finished my February 13 blogpost with this comment: “Control IQ is a step forward for me. I don’t love it yet. But I think I will.”

A month later I would say something similar. I don’t love Control IQ and occasionally wonder if I should have stayed with Basal IQ. But I am still committed to figuring this out. Even on my worst days I am not tempted to turn off Control IQ because the benefits of 24-hour protection from lows and better-than-before overnights are addicting.

Here are some things that I have learned in the last couple of weeks. Some people may disagree with my analysis of how the algorithm works and I look forward to feedback. For sure I am not quoting the Control IQ User Manual.

*** Use social media and Facebook to learn what is working for other Tandem Control IQ users. Don’t become paralyzed or discouraged when you seen flatline graphs and average BG levels of 100 from other Control IQ-ers. I don’t seem to be able to average BG’s in the 90’s or low 100’s because my insulin keeps suspending with resulting highs later on. But I am willing to learn from others who are succeeding and even from those who are struggling.

*** Consider turning to “professionals” to help to dial in settings. (Every blogger has to give the disclaimer that you shouldn’t do anything without talking to your doctor.) I am such a self-manager of my diabetes that it would never dawn on me to make a special endo or CDE appointment to talk about Control IQ. But I will be very open to suggestions from my doctor when I see her in May. Frankly right now I don’t think that many medical professionals have enough experience with Control IQ to adequately analyze our settings but I know that they will be learning in the next months just as we are learning. If I wanted to consult with someone experienced with hybrid-closed loop systems such as Looping, OpenAPS, Control IQ, and the 670G, I would probably contact Integrated Diabetes Services.

 *** Figure out your goals but don’t be afraid to tweak them as you move farther into this semi-automated insulin delivery system. Consider changing your target range so that you “succeed” within the parameters of Control IQ. Prior to Control IQ, I used a target range of 70-150 and stayed in that range a good percentage of the time. Every week that I used Control IQ I saw my statistics for that range get worse. For me that was discouraging not motivating. My endocrinologist has always encouraged me to use 70-180 and I have switched to that target for a while to boost my mental health. Interestingly my average BG between the two range choices is not different because I am doing the same things to have acceptable BG numbers. But I feel happier seeing a higher time in range in Dexcom Clarity reports. BTW I still use 150 as the high alert on the pump.

*** I think that one characteristic of “ideal” Control IQ settings is the avoidance of long suspensions of insulin. When I say “long”, I mean one hour or more.  Unfortunately I see such suspensions almost every day. Whenever I go 1-2 hours without insulin, I always go high because I just can’t be without insulin that long. The problem is that these suspensions don’t happen at the same time or in the same circumstances each day. My solution has been to learn strategies to trick Control IQ into giving me more insulin during and after these suspensions. I first tried manual boluses but that often just prompted Control IQ to suspend insulin again. So thanks to a Facebook friend, I learned about entering “fake carbs” so that Control IQ thinks that the bolus will be matched by carbs. With fake carbs, Control IQ doesn’t automatically suspend or reduce insulin as it might with a manual bolus because it expects carbs to raise your BG level. The downside of this is that your average daily carbs statistic becomes meaningless.

*** Don’t eat. Okay, that is an exaggeration…. But meal bolusing is different for me under Control IQ than previously with Basal IQ or regular pumping. In general I have to analyze what Control IQ has been doing for the last hour or two to decide how much to bolus, how far ahead to pre-bolus, and whether I need to “trick” Control IQ by adding fake carbs to the real carbs. Once again if the meal bolus is preceded by a long insulin suspension, I need the bolus to be larger than if it was preceded by my normal basal rates. I have to be careful with pre-bolusing because Control IQ will likely suspend insulin if it sees my BG dropping too low before eating. Fortunately unlike Basal IQ, Control IQ does not suspend extended boluses and that is a tool I am sometimes using to smooth the action of mealtime insulin. 

*** Simplify your pump settings as you work to figure out optimal Control IQ settings. I initially started Control IQ with my “Normal” settings and the results were not great. Then I created a new profile titled “Aggressive” and it was indeed too aggressive. I didn’t have much insight into what settings were working and which weren’t. So I created a new profile titled “One Rate.” Same basal rate, correction factor, and carb ratio for 24 hours a day. It is very similar to my pre-Control IQ settings although the carb ratio is slightly more aggressive. I have since added one more time period to that profile so technically it should now be “Two Rates.” IMO it is a good idea to use new profiles as you experiment with settings. Eventually I’ll delete most of the extra profiles.

*** Use your experience to help others in the diabetes community. It takes a village to figure out Control IQ and everything related to diabetes.

*** Sell your stock in companies that manufacture glucose tabs. These automated insulin systems are really good at reducing lows. At the same time continue to always have fast-acting carbs available. Control IQ is good, but it’s not a cure.

Summary:  My main goal with Control IQ is to have reasonably good numbers with less effort. My average blood sugar has risen with Control IQ and I expected that. One reason is fewer lows. I rarely see the 70’s and almost never the 60’s or below. The other reason is that I spend a lot of time between 100 and 125 and not much time in the 80’s. I am OK with that. I continue to use Sleep Mode 24/7 with a target range of 110-120. Less effort has not completely materialized and I am still micromanaging. But increasingly I am having longer periods of time when I don’t glance at my pump and just trust the algorithm to do the work. As long as I compensate for long insulin suspensions, that strategy is starting to show some success.

So maybe it is getting easier.

Initial Thoughts on Tandem Control IQ

I started using Control IQ on my Tandem X2 pump two weeks ago.

In a mid-January blogpost I mentioned postponing the decision to move to Control IQ and just staying with Basal IQ. For those of you who don’t follow diabetes tech much, the main difference between the two algorithms is that Basal IQ only addresses low blood sugars and Control IQ works to limit both highs and lows. But along with addressing highs, Control IQ targets a higher range than I am comfortable with. For sure the biggest issue about the decision to update the software of a Tandem pump is that if you don’t like Control IQ, you cannot go back to Basal IQ. You’re stuck.

It was a joke to think that I would delay the opportunity to update my pump to Control IQ. I admit it. 1) I am a diabetes-tech junkie and 2) I have no willpower.

So here I am with Control IQ. There was a poll in a Facebook group this morning that stated “I have been using CIQ for at least two weeks and….” The possible answers were a) Love, b) The jury is still out on that, c) I don’t love it or hate it, d) I am so excited to get it, and e) If I could go back in time, I should have stuck with Basal IQ. 

I voted for c) and then commented: “I like Control IQ but am still micro-managing. So it’s not Love yet, but it’s a strong Like.”

Because I had a good A1c and TIR (time in range) before Control IQ, the main proof of success for Control IQ will be if I can get similar or slightly higher numbers without micro-managing. Without diabetes on the brain all of the time. Without constantly looking at numbers and either taking small boluses to correct or rage-bolusing when I am frustrated. There is a lot of room to improve my life with diabetes but I am not willing to accept an average blood sugar of 150. But I am willing to camp out in a range of 100-120.

I am being what is called a “Sleeping Beauty.” That means that I am using Sleep Mode 24 hours a day and that uses basal adjustments to target a range of 112.5-120 but does not include auto correction boluses. In contrast Normal Mode is okay with blood sugars up to 160 and no auto boluses unless BG is predicted to be above 180. Although my endocrinologist would say that those numbers would be fine for me, I want to stay lower and know that I can most of the time. There is a chart on this page showing the ranges for Normal Mode.

Many people have found that they need to adjust their pump settings to be successful with Control IQ. Many or most users have written on Facebook about making their settings much more aggressive. My initial days with Control IQ were rocky and I rarely had BG’s as low as the 110-120 range, even overnight. So I created a new pump profile titled “Aggressive.” And it was aggressively aggressive with high basals and correction factors that I had never previously used except when on steroids. Ultimately this aggressiveness was counter-productive because my basal insulin kept being reduced or suspended for long periods of time and that resulted in highs later on. This pump screen photo is an ugly result of too aggressive settings. My basals were reduced and suspended for almost 3 hours.

So then I created a new profile titled “Control IQ” which is somewhere in the middle between my previous “Normal” setting and the “Aggressive” setting. I sound like Goldilocks and the Three Bears with this porridge is too hot, this porridge is too cold, and this porridge is just right. There have to be some pump settings that are not too strong and not too weak, but just right!

Ultimately I think that minor adjustments to the Control IQ profile will be a good place for me. It uses about 10% more insulin than the pre-Control IQ “Normal” profile and isn’t overwhelmed by too many long insulin suspension. 

Meals are still hard to figure out with Control IQ. Sometimes when I pre-bolus for carbs, the system suspends my insulin and that is counter-intuitive to the BG rise that I know is coming. My current solution is to just eat lower-carb meals. That isn’t much different from how I normally eat but I need to get better at dosing for what I want to eat. I have been learning new things every day both from my own experiences and those of others on Facebook. One could argue that I shouldn’t get pump training from Facebook but I don’t think that endos and CDEs have enough experience with Control IQ yet to give expert advice. Plus we know that those of us with diabetes living in the trenches really are the experts.

Previous to using Control IQ I always consulted my phone and watch to see what was going on with my blood sugar. With Control IQ I am a pump junkie. My home screen shows red areas where insulin was reduced or suspended. A little diamond shows gray for normal basal rates, blue for increased rates, yellow for reduced rates, and red for suspended insulin. The Control IQ history is fascinating but it takes ten (!) button pushes to access it. It shows at what times and how my basal rates were adjusted. In the future Tandem will have a phone app that will mirror my pump screen. That can’t come soon enough because I keep pulling out my phone to get info that is only on my pump.

Be patient, Laddie. Be patient. It is coming.

Unlike some seniors who are askance at letting a tech device control their insulin, I am excited. I need help. I want to sleep better. I want fewer alarms. I want BG graphs with rolling hills and valleys and fewer Himalayan peaks. I want my diabetes to be easier.

I’ll say it again. I want my diabetes to be easier.

Ultimately I believe that all hybrid artificial pancreas systems (Tandem Control IQ, Medtronic 670G, Omnipod systems to come, and even do-it-yourself Loop systems) are limited by the speed of insulin. We need faster insulins with shorter durations. We need the ability to set our own target ranges. We need CGM systems that are even more accurate than today’s models.

But it is all coming. Step by step by step. 

Control IQ is a step forward for me. I don’t love it yet. But I think I will.

 

*The Goldilocks image was purchased from Shutterstock.com.

Diabetes Tech: Moving into the Future

2020 has brought long-awaited changes to my life with diabetes. I am using my second Dexcom G6 sensor and so far it has been fabulous. Of course there is something quite pitiful that a diabetes device is the coolest thing in my life and I am not bragging about a new Tesla or Coach purse. But that’s life with a chronic disease….

Those of us on Medicare are late to the G6 game and you can find tons of reviews online and don’t need a review from me. But I will quickly say that the insertions have been painless and I am seeing more consistent accuracy with G6 than I ever saw with G5. (And I considered G5 to be very good.) Here is an image from Day 9 of my first sensor.

I am thrilled with not having to calibrate the sensor. One, it is not required for accuracy in most cases. Two, it eliminates the constant calibration notifications on my phone, watch, and pump. I calibrated the first sensor twice. On Day 6 it was reading super low in the 50’s when my BG was 110. A calibration quickly brought it back in line without the delays or rebounds common with G5. But the next day all of a sudden the sensor was reading too high and I had to do a reverse calibration of the previous day. The two calibrations essentially cancelled each other out and I wonder if I shouldn’t have done the first one. To be determined as I gain more experience….

If my first two sensors are a valid test, I can say without doubt that Dexcom G6 is an improvement over G5. But the biggest change in my diabetes tech life is….

Basal IQ.

As described on the Tandem Diabetes provider website: “Basal-IQ technology uses a simple linear regression algorithm that uses Dexcom G6 CGM values to predict glucose levels 30 minutes ahead based on 3 of the last 4 consecutive CGM readings. If the glucose level is predicted to be less than 80 mg/dL, or if a CGM reading falls below 70 mg/dL, insulin delivery is suspended. Insulin delivery resumes as soon as sensor glucose values begin to rise.”

For many years I used temporary basal rates of zero to head off lows. But frankly although it was a helpful technique, it didn’t always work great. The insulin suspension took too long to work and often resulted in highs later on. The difference between my attempts at manipulating insulin and Basal IQ is that the Tandem pump suspends insulin predictively. It is smarter than I am. I am smart, but Basal IQ is smarter.

I have been using Basal IQ for 2 weeks and there is no doubt that I have had fewer lows. I have had a few nights where I had no Dexcom alarms for lows. For me that is monumental. But in typical diabetes fashion I have had a few nights with moderate highs that repeated boluses are slow to bring down. There is some comfort in knowing that I can bolus more aggressively than in the past because Basal IQ will ameliorate (but not necessarily prevent) the inevitable resulting lows.

One thing I like about Basal IQ is that I can chose no notifications when it turns on and off. I am a poster child for alarm fatigue with my diabetes devices. Basal IQ prevents a lot of my lows resulting in few alerts from the Dexcom app. But I still rarely have a night with no diabetes issues and either need to completely stop snacks in the evening or raise my high alarm threshold.

I think it is interesting that Basal IQ can be considered to be a basal test. One might argue that if you repeatedly have a 3-hour period overnight where your basal is suspended for almost the whole time, your basal rates might be too high. Or if you have a period of sustained highs and never have suspended insulin through another period, maybe your rates are too low. I assume that somewhere in between is the “sweet basal spot.” But maybe not — because I have always suspected that there is not a perfect basal profile that works for every day. Remember the Diatribe 42 factors that affect blood sugar. 

In the online community, especially the Seniors with Sensors group on Facebook, there are many seniors doing really well with their diabetes. The definition of “really well” differs from person to person. But at my age if you’re satisfied with your care, your D-numbers, and have a supportive doctor, I think you’re doing really well. Some seniors using the Tandem pump and Dexcom G6 are thrilled with Basal IQ and appreciate help avoiding lows. I am mostly in that group. Others are frustrated with post-insulin-suspension highs or are convinced that a sensor-augmented insulin delivery system can’t match their manual results. A lot of seniors are going to have a hard time giving up manual control of their diabetes and their concerns are valid. In contrast the diabetes world has a whole generation of CGM users growing up not knowing anything other than complete trust in their sensors. And soon that will be the norm, not we old folks who used pee-strips, urine-testing chemistry sets, and 15 BG meter tests a day.

Tandem’s Control IQ has been approved by the FDA and will soon be available via a software update to all of us with in-warranty Tandem X2 pumps. Even those of us on Medicare! My A1c and average BG will rise if I use Control IQ. Will the reduced mental burden be worth it? Statistics and my endo might argue that I would be healthier and living with less risk if my A1c increased. Am I old enough that I should be modifying my targets and treatment? Do current risk studies for seniors with Type 1 diabetes reflect the adoption of CGM technology that protects us from most severe lows? How good does my diabetes control have to be? The questions go on and on.

I know people online who will never adopt new technology that they don’t trust or that might raise their A1c’s out of the low 5’s. I know others who are always open to trying new things and are willing to take some risks on the path to diabetes nirvana. And for sure there are people who have struggled every day of their diabetes lives and are willing to let smart technology take control of their physical and mental health. I am not sure exactly where I stand on these decisions and know that I will be writing more in the future about Control IQ.

At the moment, I am still learning Basal IQ and feel my D-life has been improved with this technology and the Dexcom G6. One roadblock that might prevent me from updating my pump to Control IQ is that I will not have the option to go back to just Basal IQ. They are completely different pump software configurations and algorithms. By going with Control IQ I am limited to the programmed target blood glucose levels for highs and they are higher than I currently target. Basal IQ just addresses lows and leaves highs to me. Does it matter? I don’t know and plan to stay on the sidelines a while before making the commitment to change.

If you are considering Control IQ, I suggest that you listen to this Diabetes-Connections podcast where Stacey Simms interviews Molly McElwey Malloy from Tandem. After listening to the podcast I was comfortable that Control IQ would be good for me. But I know I need to learn more before committing. This coming Wednesday (1/15/20) Tandem will have a live presentation on Facebook explaining Control IQ and answering listener questions. I don’t have a specific link but here is a screenshot of the email i received from Tandem. For sure you’ll hear more from me in the future about Control IQ–my opinions and those of my fellow seniors with diabetes.

 

Two Tandem Infusion Set Tricks

I confess that I am not a total rule follower with my Tandem pump. But I think that some of the “not In the manual” things I do make my pumping experience better. Today I will share two Tandem infusion set hacks with you.

If you don’t use TruSteel or VariSoft infusion sets, you might want to quit reading now.

Pain with TruSteel Sets

Within the last year I have become a convert to metal infusion sets and with Tandem that is TruSteel. I find that insulin absorbs immediately after insertion unlike other infusion sets where I had to bolus or use a temp basal to prevent post-insertion highs. And I don’t get site failures. Except…. Sometimes TruSteels just hurt because it really is just like sticking a thumbtack into your body.

When discussions about pain come up in the Tandem t:slim Pump group on Facebook, many people say that these sets never hurt and lots of parents report that their children use them pain free. So am I a wimp? I guess so because I occasionally get lots of pain and pull sets prematurely or limit the locations where I use them. And for me a painful site gets inflamed quickly.

Last week in a Facebook discussion when I shared my wish that Tandem would make a metal set with a really short needle, my online friend “Lauren” suggested putting a small piece of gauze underneath the set to seemingly make the needle shorter. Wow! I always think I know all of the diabetes hacks, but that was something I had never thought of. At the same time I am lazy and couldn’t imagine cutting up tiny pieces of gauze. Brainstorm. How about a small round Bandaid that has a built-in gauze pad in the middle? 

I am on my 4th TruSteel with a triple layer of products and the results are incredibly good. I have no idea what the exact thickness of the Bandaid is, but it is enough that I have had zero pain even with rolling over and sleeping with a set on my hip. I never could do that before. Every location I have used has been pain free and the procedure is quite easy. Stick a round Bandaid on the intended site, insert the TruSteel needle through the central gauze pad, and then put a small rectangle of Opsite Flexifix or Tegaderm on top. (I have always used over-tape on the needle site because it prevents me from accidentally ripping off the set by catching my thumb in the tubing.)

Although I still think that Tandem should have a TruSteel set with a 4mm needle, this hack is currently a great work-around for me.

Using Animas and Medtronic sets with Tandem

The following hack only relates to TruSteel and VariSoft sets. It is possible that something similar can be done with other Tandem sets but I have never used those sets.

Interim Blurb:  I’ll preface the discussion by reminding you that tubing for insulin pumps has two ends. One end connects to the pump reservoir and is unique for each brand of pump. Tandem tubing will not connect to Medtronic or Animas reservoirs. Nor will Medtronic or Animas tubing connect to Tandem cartridges. 

BUT…. The other end of the tubing that connects to the infusion site on your body is the same for Tandem, Medtronic, and Animas. And not only is it the same for each pump brand, it is the same for TruSteel and VariSoft sets and the Medtronic/Animas equivalents of those sets. So if I use Tandem tubing attached to my Tandem pump cartridge, I can hook the other end of the tubing onto a TruSteel, VariSoft, Medtronic Silhouette, Medtronic Sure-T, Animas Comfort, or Animas Contact Detach set.

Why is this important?

Many of us struggle to get a sufficient number of infusion sets and that has been my experience on Medicare. But I have a diabetes friend who at one point had lots of extra Medtronic Silhouette sets that he wanted to get rid of. I was happy to help him out. 

Interim Blurb:  I use my pump cartridges and tubing for longer than my infusion sets and often change them independently of each other. I have done this throughout my entire pumping career with Medtronic, Animas, and now Tandem. My old lady skin and tissue require changing infusion sites every two days but it would be expensive and time consuming to change my cartridge and tubing that frequently. Some people consider that heresy but it has always worked well for me.

So how do I use my friend’s Silhouette sets? When I start a new cartridge on my t:slim, I use a Tandem infusion set (VariSoft or TruSteel) and the Tandem tubing that comes with that set. Two days later when I change my infusion set, I have the flexibility to use a VariSoft, a TruSteel, a Medtronic Silhouette or Sure-T, or an Animas Comfort or Contact Detach. And WHY is that? Because the end of the tubing that connects to the pump site on my body is identical for these six types of sets. The blue circles in the illustration below show that the site connectors on Tandem, Medtronic, and Animas are identical.

You may wonder why I keep mentioning Animas since these pumps and supplies are no longer sold in the US. But there are still people occasionally posting on social media that they have Animas supplies to donate. I was the beneficiary of a huge number of boxes of Animas Contact infusion sets that a local woman wanted to dispose of. I explained that she could use them with her daughter’s Medtronic pump with a tubing substitution but she wasn’t interested. These extra infusion sets are providing me with years of protection from Medicare rationing of supplies.

Another reason to understand how infusion sets can be substituted from brand to brand is that if you’re out of town and forget to bring extra Tandem infusion sets, maybe there is someone locally with a Medtronic Silhouette or Sure-T or even some Animas sets.

Interim Blurb: When you change infusion sets more often than cartridges and tubing, you end up accumulating lots of extra tubing. I save most of it because it gives me flexibility. I still have my Animas Vibe pump and could use Tandem or Medtronic sets with it because I have baggies full of Animas tubing. Similarly if I switch to Medtronic in the future, I could use Tandem or Animas sets because I have lots of Medtronic tubing.

I think that this hack will be confusing for many people. But if you understand what I am saying and use either VariSoft or TruSteel sets, you may find it helpful.

Now back to reading the Tandem user manual because I will be starting Basal IQ in a few weeks….

Medicare and Dexcom G6: Yes!?!

There is a lot of discussion on social media this week about Dexcom G6 finally being available for Medicare recipients. Most of it is personal testimony along with a few links and guesses of what the story is. But some seniors are definitely ordering G6 systems and that is great news. I have heard from two sources that Dexcom will be sending current Medicare G5 users “A LETTER.” But now that the cat’s out of the bag, many of us are not patiently waiting for instructions from Dexcom.

The most information about G6 Medicare availability is on the Dexcom Provider website. This link details the steps a physician should go through to prescribe a G6 for Medicare patients:

https://provider.dexcom.com/support/medicare-coverage-and-prescribing-information

Interestingly Walgreen’s is being mentioned as the go-to supplier. Walgreen’s is licensed to dispense Part B DME for Medicare because that is how they have for many years provided test strips, insulin for pumps, and other DME products. Patients are also allowed to use other approved DME suppliers to get their Dexcom G6 and I have chosen to use Solara Medical which provides my pump supplies. Although I am mostly a satisfied Walgreen’s customer, they do periodically bill my Part B insulin to my Part D prescription plan and I don’t want to give them the chance to do the same with my CGM supplies. Hopefully the Dexcom-Walgreen’s partnership will be successful but I suspect it will take a while to work seamlessly.

Here are a couple more helpful links:

Medicare FAQ’s:  https://provider.dexcom.com/faqs-categories/medicare

DME suppliers other than Walgreens:  https://www.dexcom.com/medicare-coverage

I have no idea what the Dexcom letter will say or if there really is one. I do know that upgrade eligibility will require that it be at least 90 days since since the most recent G5 transmitter was shipped. I was somewhat concerned by the following statement on the provider FAQ’s webpage addressing existing Medicare patients: “New Medicare patients will have access to Dexcom G6 immediately, and we will begin upgrading existing Dexcom G5 Medicare patients soon.”

Since I have lived with Dexcom’s definitions of “soon” and “next quarter” for over a year, I was not willing to wait to see what happens. I called Solara this morning and a sales specialist placed my order. Solara will contact my endocrinologist for a prescription and the required chart notes. My last G5 transmitter shipped on August 6 and my G6 system should be eligible to be shipped on November 5. My G5 receiver is the old style and not able to be updated to G6. Therefore my initial G6 shipment will include a touchscreen receiver. Medicare regulations still require that a receiver be used occasionally to view Dexcom data although there is currently no enforcement of the policy. I think it is a “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” situation and a reflection of the fact that CMS has no interest in diving into the black hole of trying to update Medicare DME policies. Because Dexcom Clarity does reflect what devices I use to collect my CGM data, I try to use the receiver a day or two every couple of months. That seems “occasional” enough to me….

I am mostly happy with my Dexcom G5. But I use a Tandem pump and have been very frustrated at my inability to access Basal IQ because I don’t have a Dexcom G6. I truly believe that Basal IQ will improve my safety and sleep as it shuts off insulin delivery in response to predicted lows. Whether I use Basal IQ all of the time or just at night will be determined in the next couple of months. 

Nothing about this blogpost is official although it shares some legitimate facts through the Dexcom provider links. Other than that, it is what I have learned on Facebook from other Medicare Dex users and by talking with a sales rep at Solara Medical. Until a Dexcom G6 system arrives on my front porch, I will only hope that the road that I have chosen to G6 is a good one. If any of my readers has more information, opinions, or G6 experience, please share in the comments.

But I am smiling today because I was worried that today might never come….

A Looping Failure

A few days ago I unscrewed the top of my RileyLink case, removed the tiny circuit board, and disconnected the battery. I put the box of pods back in the closet and retrieved my Tandem pump from the medical supply clutter box.

I am officially declaring my Looping experiment to be over.

If you don’t know what Looping is, it is a user-created app for an automated insulin delivery system that pairs an Omnipod or old Medtronic pump, a CGM, and a computer algorithm. If you want to learn more, read Loop Docs and check out the Looped Facebook group. Earlier this summer with files made available by the rockstars of the Do-It-Yourself community, I used my Mac laptop and a newly-acquired Apple Developer Account to create the Loop app on my iPhone. It was a miraculous experience for an experienced person with diabetes and a relatively inexperienced techie.

But I hated the pods. They often hurt and my insulin absorption was erratic. The occasional dark red/purple bruises were quite horrible and proof that diabetes can be a blood and gore sport. Some days the pods worked great. Other days I would bolus and bolus (or Loop would basal and basal) with seemingly no effect on my blood sugar. 

Previous to the opportunity to try Looping with an Omnipod, I was never interested in pods. I was convinced that they would be more awkward on my body than a tubed pump and infusion set. This feeling is why it is important to have CHOICE for those of us with diabetes. As much as I hate pods, there are people who despise tubes and love podding. I started using pods a few weeks before starting to Loop and quickly discovered that even changing pods every two days didn’t give consistent results. But I was excited at the possibility of automated insulin delivery and persevered.

In order to have success Looping, your pump settings must be close to perfect. Basal rates, bolus ratios, and insulin sensitivity factors are hugely important. My experience was that settings which worked well one day were abysmally wrong the next day. Because of my variable results with pods, I was pessimistic that I could get settings that would work consistently.

But it would be unfair to blame all of my Looping problems on pods. I was an emotional Looper and incredibly impatient when things didn’t go well. Instead of methodically problem-solving, I either randomly changed pump settings or in frustration went back to my Tandem pump for a couple of days. I was not good at relinquishing control over my insulin delivery and couldn’t move past 42 years of being the brain for my diabetes.

All along I have known that my future is with Tandem. In the last year I have been frustrated at my inability to use Basal IQ because of Dexcom’s delay in providing seniors with the Dexcom G6. But it will come and I am cautiously excited about the Tandem Control IQ hybrid-closed loop that that will be available late this year or early next. I thought Looping would be a good experiment for the months while I continue to wait for G6. 

Longterm using an Omnipod is incredibly expensive under Medicare in comparison to a tubed pump. My Tandem pump, its supplies, and insulin are covered under Part B where Basic Medicare pays 80% of the cost and my Supplemental plan pays the remaining 20%. Thus I have no out-of-pocket cost. Omnipod is covered under Medicare Part D pharmacy benefits. With my Cigna plan, the pods were Tier 3 with a $405 annual deductible and then hefty copays. Plus my insulin was provided under Tier 3 pharmacy benefits with copays and donut-hole repercussions. 

One reason that it was easy for me to abandon Loop is that prior to Looping, my diabetes numbers were mostly “in range.” Interestingly I compared 2-week Dexcom Clarity reports between Looping and my Tandem pump and the statistics were virtually identical. My hope with Looping was to reduce the mental burden of diabetes and it never really happened. I had some wonderful overnights where Loop prevented lows and highs and I woke up at a steady BG of 93. But I had just as many nights with constant Dexcom low and high alarms. In general I wasn’t one of the experienced and ecstatic Loopers who saw meaningful improvements in their diabetes life. And remember I was too impatient to keep working at it.

Will I try Looping again? Maybe, maybe not. There were things I loved about Looping: being in charge of my settings, targets, and alerts, controlling my diabetes from my iPhone and Apple Watch, and the potential to free up brain width that never rests with diabetes. The Looping community is incredible with help, expertise, and support given to all-comers (except the grouchy ones). Automated insulin delivery is the future but we are still limited by hardware, the speed of insulin, and the infinite complexity of Type 1 diabetes.

Today I am very comfortable with my decision to abandon Looping. I am relieved to be back using a tubed pump with less pain and somewhat more predictable results. There are definite warts using my Tandem pump with occasional occlusion alarms and non-customizable annoying alerts. But I am comfortable being back to “what I know.” I learned a lot while Looping and for sure gained more appreciation of how incredibly difficult it is to manage diabetes. I was once again reminded that while improvement is possible, perfection is not.

If you are interested in Looping, I encourage you to check it out. My experience was only my experience and not an indication of how the system will work for you. Lots of people are having great success with this do-it-yourself app and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to Loop and then the opportunity not to Loop.

Diabetes, Just Tell Me!

Lately I have been having days, well actually weeks when I am starting to question how I deal with my diabetes. I have used an insulin pump for 15 years and don’t really want to change back to injections. For me a pump is more convenient and allows multiple basal rates and easy bolusing through the day. I have used a continuous glucose monitor for 10 years and can’t or don’t want to imagine doing without the constant blood glucose numbers on my phone and watch. 

But lately I feel as though my tech has been failing me and I’ll show that through a couple of photos below.

The first day of a new Dexcom G5 sensor:

The graph of a pod starting to fail after less than two days. The downslope reflects a new pod:

But what if it isn’t my tech? What if it is just my body and my diabetes? I have seen a ton of crazy up arrows on my Dexcom in recent weeks and many of them have been unexpected. I am quick to blame the sensor but unfortunately most of the time my meter has confirmed the Himalayan-esque rises and falls. But sometimes it is the sensor. I have had numerous high BG numbers that have not resolved until I changed out a Tandem infusion set or these days, a new Pod. But sometimes the highs are from last night’s pizza or the second or third glass of wine. 

Most of the time I just don’t know. Why doesn’t diabetes just tell me the answer!?!

I know that my life is a constant science experiment and I am usually pretty good at figuring out what is going on. Although I get frustrated, angry, and guilty at some of my aberrant Dexcom graphs, I do my best to correct the numbers as quickly as possible. My A1c’s continue to be good and I feel good most of the time. And when I don’t feel good, arthritis is the culprit not endocrine issues. But Type 1 is always in the background laughing at my attempts at perfection. I‘m caught in the hamster wheel of trying to get it right. All of the time. But not changing my ways.

Sometimes I think the hardest part of diabetes is not always knowing the “why’s” of what is going on. Is my rising blood sugar this evening a result of what I ate for dinner? Or is my infusion site giving out? Is there a problem with air in my pump cartridge? Is the insulin old and compromised by the heat of my rechargeable pump battery? Most of us are familiar with the list that Adam Brown of Diatribe compiled titled “42 Factors That Affect Blood Glucose.” They all make sense but a checklist of possibilities doesn’t always help me dig out of today’s hole.

Why can’t degraded insulin turn purple? Why can’t my Dexcom have a footnote specifying whether a number is reliable or fantasy? Why can’t my body tell me whether an early morning high is hormones or a pod gone bad? Why can’t I have the type of diabetes that only drifts high and low instead of Dex double-upping or double-downing? I could go on with more why’s but I think you get the picture. 

To tell you the truth, I suspect that if blood glucose numbers were the #1 aim in my life, I would be better served by eating a Bernstein-ian ultra low carb diet and using a cocktail of insulin by injection. Although tech is great, I am lately not finding it to be very reliable. But I am stubborn and am somewhat addicted to the toys and challenge of diabetes tech.

So instead of going back to the basics, I am currently using an Omnipod in anticipation of starting to Loop. I have used three pods and not one of them has made it to 48 hours before soaring blood sugars. And I don’t know why. The idea that Looping with Omnipod is going to be successful for me is probably a pipe dream.

I think I might be dealing with diabetes distress but that’s not the subject of this post….

March Miscellany

It is a new month and time for opinionated comments and updates.

It Shouldn’t Be This Hard:  Earlier this week I ordered my February Medicare bundle from Dexcom. I am also in the process of trying to get my 90-day insulin prescription under Medicare Part B. I’ll politely say with no curse words that none of this is going well. I am turning into the “Always-B*tching Blogger” because this stuff is so hard. And it shouldn’t be. I am just trying to do what I did last month and the month before with Dexcom and 3, 6, 9 months ago with Walgreens and insulin. 

I will eventually get out of Dexcom “Processing” limbo and my supplies will be  shipped. Some Medicare recipients have been told that shipments are delayed 7-10 days due to high volume. Long call waits, shipments delays, and moving Call Support to the Philippines have not made Dexcom a popular company in the diabetes online community. ‘Nuff said. And Walgreens will figure out how to get Medicare coverage for my insulin.

At the same time, I like the ring of Always-B*tching Blogger and you can just think of me as ABB!

The Weather:  I have spent winters in Arizona for 15+ years and have never seen snow. That changed last week with 3 inches of the white stuff. Fortunately despite a few downed tree limbs, we had little damage. 

Finally spring has arrived and the Arizona that I know and love is back.

Ground Squirrels:  Although my landscape and flowers survived the snow, I am totally losing the battle with ground squirrels. These horrible creatures are “protected” in Arizona and my exterminator isn’t allowed to poison them. Plantskyd which deters rabbits and deer in Minnesota is impotent. My normally gorgeous March geraniums are decimated. This photo is one day after replanting and an ample dosing of Plantskyd.

The Dog:  All of my readers are kind to read about my dog and her journey through aging and illness. I have come to terms with her limitations and the fact that we only walk half a block twice a day. Otherwise she is happy, eats well, drinks well, poops well, plays fetch with her Bouda giraffe, and wags her tail. Despite me being her caretaker, feeder, medicine dispenser, Bouda thrower, etc., she loves my husband the best and delegates me to #2. Like a teenager, she loves baking in the sun on our back patio.

Animas/Medtronic/Tandem: My Animas pump went out of warranty in late 2016, but I still get emails from Animas and Medtronic about switching to a Medtronic pump system. I am committed to Dexcom and see Tandem and maybe Omnipod as my future. Until Medtronic sensors are reimbursed by Medicare, there is no way that I will take a chance on a CGM that is out-of-pocket. At the same time I have struggled for 2+ years with occlusion alarms on my Tandem X2 and have been back using my Animas Vibe trouble-free for the last 3 months. 

Kinda Whole 30: I have written about Whole 30 and my imperfection at succeeding through 30 days. But I periodically go back on the reset diet and am amazed at how fabulous my blood sugars react to no dairy and no grains. I eat a ton of fruit on this diet and get no spikes. Because I have hosted two dinner parties in the last week, I have once again have strayed from perfect adherence and have had wine. But here is a 24-hour Dexcom tracing that speaks for itself.

Thank-you.  As always, I am grateful for my online diabetes contacts. Keep up the good fight, my friends, and keep in touch. Without you, my diabetes would be really, really hard instead of just really hard. Diabetes social media makes a difference.