Illustrator Haidee Merritt charms readers with her illustrations about Type 1 diabetes.
The UW campus looked a little different to Haidee Merritt, ’95, when she arrived as a transfer student from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania by way of New Hampshire. In a sea of motley flannel shirts—it was the height of the grunge era—Merritt began to lose her vision. She has had Type 1 diabetes since age 2, and during college, the micro blood vessels in her eyes began to hemorrhage. “It happened over a period of three or four days; my vision became completely foggy and distorted, like looking through a fishtank,” recalls Merritt. She underwent vitrectomy surgeries, used to treat retina detachment, at Virginia Mason (a six-hour procedure for each eye with two weeks of recovery back then), but student life changed. She needed to use a cane to get around.
“I wanted to remain very independent, so I was really angry and resistant to accepting help; I tried to just continue life the way it had been, almost trying to disguise my new disability, says Merritt, who maintains an enormous respect for those who use a cane or a wheelchair. “Believe me, I needed a cane and yet I was so incredibly insecure about showing any weakness it was painful for me to use one. So stupid.” Merritt points out that mobility canes help others to identify the visually impaired, also helpful for community support. “There were countless embarrassing situations I could’ve avoided if I’d only owned up to some of my limitations: I was stuck in a glass revolving door once for what seemed like hours!”
Back on the East Coast, Merritt’s family did their best to support her. A double-major in English and Classics, Merritt wasn’t sure how she’d finish her education. “Remember, this was almost 35 years ago, at the birth of the internet; no one corresponded by email or could search the web for resources.” To aid in the process, Merritt’s father started reading her books and assignments on tape, sending boxes of cassettes across the miles, delivered directly to her Capitol Hill apartment. Merritt says it really took a village to get her diploma, from the surgeons and professors to the bus drivers who took her to the U District daily.
“It’s just such an all-consuming chronic condition. There’s so much that goes into everyday survival, it’s literally like having a full-time job.”
And then, a serendipitous temp placement sent her to UW Medicine physician Irl Hirsch, one of the world’s authorities on diabetes. “I was randomly given him while temping—as a diabetic, I was put in a diabetic hospital with diabetic Irl Hirsch. The universe was sending me a message.”
As Merritt’s eyes healed from the surgeries, frustration with her chronic disease grew. Because her perception of space and color was left forever distorted, she began drawing with pen and ink in black-and-white. (“I erased a lot and used gallons of Whiteout.”) The result: three sardonic and witty comic books about the perils of life with diabetes based on her own insights and experiences. Her illustrations are entirely handmade—still no computers involved—and her work is all self-published under the moniker Bird Wing Press.
Reviews of her books (“FingerPricks,” “One Lump or Two?” and 2023’s “The Sweet Taste of Misery”) are highly favorable. It’s no wonder: Her work is deeply personal, with readers reaching out to commiserate or share how long they’ve had the disease. Merritt admits marketing alone adds to the frustration of this chronic disease. “I’d also like to educate people who know and live with diabetic people so they can hear how difficult it can be to deal with the emotions, frustrations and complications. But I guess that’s often the plight of the artist,” says Merritt. “At this point, my diabetic work is hard to market on my own. It’s a gift of love. When I die, it’s my legacy.”
While her zine about insulin might not fly off the shelves, the hormone itself does. “Diabetes is a huge money maker,” she laments. And insulin isn’t the cure; it’s simply a very expensive treatment. Frederick Banting, who co-discovered insulin over a century ago, sold the patent to the University of Toronto for $1, saying it belonged to the world, not him. But today, insulin can cost hundreds of dollars per month, and it can’t be replaced by other drugs, which can lead to rationing medication, or choosing between insulin and food. “It’s just such an all-consuming chronic condition,” Merritt says. “There’s so much that goes into everyday survival, it’s literally like having a full-time job.”
So, she draws. “It’s an acceptance of the way things are,” she says of her work. She continues to put pen to paper despite her weak vision and low sales volume, and her readers thank her for it. “Buy the book twice,” one reviewer writes. “Enjoy one copy for yourself and place the other one in the magazine rack at the endocrinologist’s office.”