Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Diabetic shock

California doctor with disease flabbergasted to find out her Winnipeg grandmother was one of the first 22 children in the world to get live-saving insulin 88 years ago

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Dr. Lois Jovanovic was flipping through a booklet about the first kids to receive insulin when a shock ran through her like lightning.

"The picture inside of it absolutely was electricity for me," says an animated Jovanovic, during a phone interview from her office in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"All of a sudden it jumped off the page."

The photo that caught Jovanovic by surprise was of an old letter dated December 1922.

The neat, feminine scroll on the cartoon-filled stationary was clearly a child's.

Jovanovic recognized the handwriting. It was similar to her own.

Only it couldn't have been her writing; 1922 was decades before her birth.

The letter's subject matter also intrigued Jovanovic, an endocrinologist who happens to be one of the world's most respected researchers in Type 1 diabetes and pregnancy. She could see that a little girl with Type 1 diabetes from Winnipeg's Talbot Road wrote the letter to Dr. Frederick Banting, the Toronto researcher who discovered injectable insulin.

The young Winnipegger, named Mira, was one of the first 22 children in the world to get insulin, a brand-new discovery at the time.

Before the discovery of insulin -- a hormone that helps the body metabolize carbohydrates -- children with Type 1 diabetes did not live long.

In her letter, eight-year-old Mira thanked Banting for saving her life.

As Jovanovic scanned the pages in front of her, she realized why she was so drawn to the youngster's letter.

The child was her flesh and blood. Her grandmother. Her father's mother.

"It was very clear that the little girl's name was Mira Blaustein and her father's name was Louis Blaustein and I was named after Louis Blaustein," says Jovanovic, who didn't know that her grandmother had lived in Winnipeg.

It was an incredible discovery for the doctor, who also wasn't aware that her grandmother, Mira, had Type 1 diabetes. Mira had died shortly after Jovanovic's father was born.

Jovanovic herself had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 18, while in university. Her father -- who also had the same disease -- died of its complications a few years earlier. The day he died, she vowed she would become a doctor to prevent others from suffering "the way daddy did."

It was the 70th anniversary of the discovery of insulin that prompted Canadian author and historian Michael Bliss to create the publication containing Mira's letter. It was a bizarre coincidence that he had given a copy to the Minneapolis-born Jovanovic.

The little green booklet sat on the doctor's bedside table for a few years, untouched and unread.

The night she decided to read it, her sense of her own history changed. "It was very clear with a little Sherlock Holmes detective work that certainly that was Grandma."

Jovanovic found out Mira's parents -- Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe -- contacted Banting, asking him to help save their dying daughter.

Jovonovic believes that her young grandmother travelled from Winnipeg to Banting's clinic by train. She was likely weak and near comatose due to a chronic overload of glucose in her blood.

She says Banting -- who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery -- wrote to Mira's parents that he didn't think their little girl would survive the long journey to Toronto. But if she did, he would give her insulin.

"A lot of what's happened to me has been an awakening," says Jovanovic, noting that she is alive today because of her grandmother's trip to Banting's clinic 88 years ago.

Jovanovic will be in Winnipeg June 10 to speak at a reception celebrating the 25th anniversary of the city's Diabetes Education Resource Centre for Children and Adolescents (DER-CA). The cutting-edge clinic for young Type 1 diabetes patients was the first of its kind in Canada.

Jovanovic, 58, vaguely recalls visiting cousins in Winnipeg when she was just six years old. It will be her first time back to the city since then. She hopes to track down her relatives and uncover more information about her grandmother.

Dr. Heather Dean, founder of the DER-CA, says guests will be blown away by Jovanovic's story.

Dean, a pediatric endocrinologist, says she got "goosebumps" when she found out that a Winnipegger was one of the first recipients of insulin in 1922.

She learned of the story from reading a diabetes medical journal.

"I suddenly went, 'holy mackerel!'

"The strength of the parents, the courage of the parents and also the connectivity of the parents. I don't know how they ever connected with Dr. Banting in Toronto," says Dean. "You get on a train with a child who's dying and you get some insulin.

"We just want to get everyone together to say here's this wonderful bone-chilling story."

The DER-CA anniversary reception will take place on Thursday, June 10 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Brodie Atrium, 727 McDermot Avenue. Present patients and "graduates" of the clinic -- along with their extended families -- are welcome to attend. If attending, email Pat Bobko at


Shamona is a "graduate" of the DER-CA.


Have an interesting story idea you'd like Shamona to write about? Contact her at

Type 1 diabetes

-- Occurs when the pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that converts carbohydrate into energy. Without insulin, even nutritious foods such as cereal, beans, fruits and vegetables will cause blood-sugar levels to soar.

-- High blood-sugar levels can lead to vascular complications such as vision loss, limb amputation and kidney disease. Tight blood-sugar control reduces the risk of developing such complications.

-- Most experts say Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease. It's different than Type 2 diabetes, a condition usually brought on by inactivity and unhealthy diet.

-- Most Type 1 patients are diagnosed as children.

-- All Type 1 patients must take insulin to survive.

-- More than 300,000 Canadians have Type 1 diabetes.

-- Approximately 60 children in Manitoba are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes every year.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2010 D1

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