The TikTok stars giving diabetes the needle

By Edward Main
BBC Ouch

  • Published
Media caption,

‘We accidentally posted a video about diabetes, and it went viral’

When best friends Ellen Watson and Beth McDaniel posted a TikTok video of themselves getting glammed up for a night out, they had no idea they were about to become a viral sensation.

Overnight, a video of them dancing around racked up 500,000 views - not because of their outfits or before-and-after hair and make-up transformation, but because the Northern Irish students happily showed off their wearable blood glucose scanners which help them manage their type 1 diabetes.

Rather than conceal the small white discs under clothing as many people do, Beth and Ellen displayed them on their bare arms and pointed to them as they danced.

The video propelled them into the social media stratosphere and the Diabetic Duo was born.

"It's just been crazy," Ellen, 19, told the BBC Ouch podcast. "I think it was because people had seen it and they were tagging their diabetic friends going: 'Isn't this what you have in your arm?'.

"Even non-diabetic people were commenting: 'What is this? Why do you have this in your arm?' So it did cause a lot of conversation."

Image source, Diabetic Duo

The scanners Beth and Ellen wear help them to track their blood sugar levels by taking glucose readings from interstitial fluid - a thin layer of fluid that surrounds the cells of the tissues below the skin. Those readings can be scanned using a mobile phone and the results shared with anyone who needs to know.

It's an alternative to the more traditional finger-prick test which relies on drawing blood, and which can be painful and numb the fingers.

People who wear the monitors often hide them under their clothing because they prefer to manage their condition quietly but Beth and Ellen choose to be open about it on their chosen site TikTok, mostly known for videos which last just a few seconds.

The majority of clips on the platform feature lip-synching to pop videos, dancing or visual gags, so the pair have to get creative when it comes to getting a medical lifestyle message across.

In a video about taking insulin, the Diabetic Duo filmed themselves injecting in unusual locations - standing at the top of a human pyramid, hula hooping, in front of a police riot van, and all to the soundtrack of the Bee Gees song Stayin' Alive.

Image source, Diabetic Duo
Image caption,
Getting the point: Beth and Ellen filmed themselves self-injecting in unusual places

In another video Beth and Ellen, both from Banbridge, County Down, don glasses and suits, and take on the role of stern diabetes nurses who tut over their own blood sugar levels.

As well as enjoying their moment in the spotlight, the pair find relief in being able to take a light-hearted look at a serious illness.

Ellen was diagnosed at age six after her mother, a nurse, spotted the main symptoms, known as the Four Ts: Extreme Thirst, losing weight and getting Thin, needing the Toilet and Tiredness.

Then, last August, Beth's 12-year-old sister was diagnosed. Eight days later, in an unexpected coincidence, Beth, 20, became unwell and was also found to have type 1 diabetes. Her blood sugar levels had sky-rocketed to 20 whereas a non-diabetic result would be between four and seven.

What is diabetes?

Image source, Getty Images

Despite being caused differently, all forms of diabetes have one thing in common - too much sugar, or glucose - in the bloodstream.

The levels of glucose are normally controlled by the hormone insulin, which is produced by the pancreas.

If you have type 1 diabetes, your body cannot make insulin. It is a serious, lifelong condition that is treated by injecting insulin.

With type 2 diabetes, your insulin is not working effectively, or you cannot make enough. It can often be treated with lifestyle changes and medication, and sometimes it is possible to reverse the condition.

Without treatment and management, diabetes can have long-lasting health impacts - including eye problems, kidney issues, increased stroke risks and nerve damage.

Source: Diabetes UK

Close friends Beth and Ellen were known by those around them as the Iconic Duo. When Beth revealed she too was diabetic, Ellen says: "My mum dropped the washing basket and I burst into tears." She gave Beth a card to cheer her up and wrote "We're the Diabetic Duo now".

Beth says "It just kind of stuck. We were like, 'Oh my goodness, this was meant to happen'."

She says they were not trying to make a point about diabetes when they started posting videos together, but the audience quickly zeroed in on the topic and the response has been positive.

Cox2be2013 posted: "My 10 year old son Ellis (diagnosed 2 years ago) loves your videos and said 'I wish this was me'." While Ben_1671 says: "You have encouraged me to feel more normal."

Image source, Diabetic Duo
Image caption,
In one video the duo watch in dismay as their blood sugar levels slump after a drink

Ellen says: "I really identify with some of the young people messaging us. What I would have done to have two girls like Beth and I to look up to."

She found her diagnosis easy to handle as a child, but as a teenager felt very self-conscious.

When she started secondary school she hid the fact she took insulin injections by doing them under the canteen table and sometimes did not eat so she didn't have to inject. "That's so dangerous," Ellen says. "I do not recommend that at all."

Having the support of each other has helped them grow in confidence as they manage the lifelong condition.

Beth, who was diagnosed last year, says having a supportive and knowledgeable friend in Ellen, and making videos which are popular, has helped her come to terms with the condition.

"If I didn't have all this hype and glamour around me would I have dealt with it as well?"

According to Diabetes UK, people with diabetes are twice as likely to experience depression than those without the condition and , after a diagnosis, the focus on food, weight and body image, can trigger eating disorders - something both women are conscious of.

The duo agree that the feedback has given them a positive outlook, and the success has spurred them on to make more videos.

They are aware their videos may appear frivolous to some but believe their message on the reality of living with diabetes cuts through the noise on social media because of their frank take on it.

Image source, Diabetic Duo

They hope that by making diabetes more visible - and having a laugh while doing it - they can continue to break any stigma around the condition, and help others feel less socially isolated.

"It's very light-hearted, you know, and that's what we're trying to do because then non-diabetic people want to watch it too," Beth says. "It's lifelong. You just got to embrace it and get on with it."

The students have now found themselves juggling their studies with the increasing media attention to their online activities.

So what does the future hold for the Diabetic Duo?

"We just want to keep making videos and working away at uni and just seeing where it all takes us," Ellen says. "We really would love in the future to become like the female Ant and Dec.

"That's the dream."

The Diabetic Duo also appear on How to be an Influencer - a look at some of the popular influencers in Northern Ireland, with That Belfast Girl.

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