In March of 2014, I knew my eight year old daughter was sick. Once borderline overweight, she was now skeletally thin and fading away from us. A pre-dawn ambulance ride to the hospital gave us the devastating news – our daughter had Type 1 diabetes, and would be dependent on insulin injections for the rest of her life.
This news hit me particularly hard. I’ve always been a preparedness-minded kind of guy, and I’ve worked to free myself and my family from as many of the systems of support as possible. As I sat in the dark of the Pediatric ICU watching my daughter slowly come back to us, I contemplated how tied to the medical system I had just become. She was going to need a constant supply of expensive insulin, doled out by a medical insurance system that doesn’t understand that a 90-day supply of life-saving medicine is a joke to a guy who stocks a year supply of toilet paper. Plus I had recently read an apocalyptic novel where a father watches his 12-year old diabetic daughter slip into a coma as the last of her now-unobtainable insulin went bad in an off-grid world. I swore to myself that I’d never let this happen, and set about trying to find ways to make my own insulin, just in case.
VICTOR’S HACK, EVA’S INSULIN
Think the day can never come when insulin isn’t commercially available? That might have been what Eva and Victor Saxl thought, but they learned otherwise. In the late 1930s, the Saxls were a young Jewish couple living in Czechoslovakia. They saw the writing on the wall and managed to get out of the country ahead of Hitler’s tanks. Good timing, but unfortunate execution, as they ended up in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Only 19, Eva had just been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, and now had no legal access to insulin thanks to tightening Japanese control of the Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.
Victor, a textile engineer with no formal background in biology, took it upon himself to hack his way out of the problem. It had been less than twenty years since insulin had first been isolated from the pancreas of a cow, so Victor read up on the process, borrowed some lab space from a Chinese friend, and eventually succeeded in producing a murky brown fluid from water buffalo pancreases. Having no way to test his concoction, he injected it into his ailing wife and waited, not knowing if his semi-purified sludge would kill her. It didn’t. In fact, she perked up as her blood glucose dropped. Victor’s hacked insulin saved his young wife’s life and with ramped up production, over 400 other refugees were saved. Eva and many of the refugees lived well into their 80s.