Needles Are Easy…Life’s a Challenge

This is part 1 of 2 of what we call “longreads”, or stories that are longer than 1,000 words. 

On a warm sunny Sunday in late May, my grandfather and I opened up the shed in his backyard. Back in early December, Grandpa said that he had some boxes of stuff that belonged to my mom, sister, and I, that didn’t end up on the moving truck when Mom moved from Waterloo to the Quad Cities 15 years ago.

There was a scrapbook I was frantically searching for to use as a display for my 20th high school reunion the night before. After combing through my apartment for weeks, I all but given up hope of finding it. I ended up bringing my senior yearbook, several team photos from football and basketball, and a graduation announcement to the reunion .

Grandpa and I pulled the boxes out and start sifting through what was in them. One of the boxes didn’t belong to me…it was box of my cousin’s toys. In the other boxes, I found my old junior high and freshmen football jerseys, an old student manager polo shirt when I was worked in the cafeteria in college, and books and term papers (lots of them) from college. I did find that scrapbook, and all of the photos I thought I would never find for the reunion.

But there was one item that stood out. A small white 5′ x 8′ card was sticking out of a pamphlet. On the card was a meal plan and a set of food choices, with a date: 8/15/94. That card was a missing link that perplexed me for the last five years. I knew the events of that day, the month and the year, but never the exact day. After going to Time and Date and looking up the 1994 calendar, the timeline made sense.

August 15th was my appointment to see Polly Eide, a certified diabetes educator.

The card in question. My first diabetes meal plan.
The card in question. My first diabetes meal plan.

Twenty years ago this week, August 12th, I was diagnosed with diabetes. It may mean little to those who have never lived or been associated with diabetes, but similar to cancer and major life events, you remember a significant moment in your life. What transpired over these 20 years has been, at times, a discovery, frustration, isolation, and small victories.

I was always an overweight stocky kid. Smart, polite, timid…and always self-conscious when it came to my waist size. I hated running, but I was somewhat decent when it came to playing sports in P.E. class. I played football, managed the basketball team, participated in band, and worked diligently to maintain good grades in school. What most of my classmates didn’t know was that my parents were going through an ugly divorce and remarrying different people. As a stutterer, it was hard to convey my feelings and thoughts to anyone. I didn’t need further embarrassment as a teenager.

I love food. Check that. I loved sweets. Donuts, cake, ice cream, kool-aid…whatever that was not a vegetable, it was going down in my tummy like Ron Burgundy and scotch. It was common for me to ask for a second helping of food. It was just the way it was at home. Food was a security blanket. I also stayed cooped up in my room, left to my imaginations and thoughts. If I wasn’t doing homework, I would have the radio on listening to a game on AM radio and designing maps of fictional cities and highways.

The summer of 1994 was a period of transition. I was graduating from high school and was heading to college. Between that, a trip to Washington, D.C. and a family reunion in Ohio. The D.C. trip was great, but the trip to Canton and the Pro Football Hall of Fame was going to be the cherry on top of the sundae. Late July, my family drove to Canton. I don’t remember much of the drive there, but I kept getting thirsty and reaching for cans of Mountain Dew from the cooler. We visited the HOF, attended the reunion, and headed back home. I remember the drive back home. I was still thirsty and I needed to go to the restroom badly. No one, including I, noticed any signs at all that something was wrong.

I was scheduled to have a physical exam on Friday, August 12. I had planned on trying out for the football team at Wartburg and an exam was mandatory. I drove over to the Schoitz Medical Building. Schoitz was formerly a hospital before consolidating with nearby St. Francis Hospital to become Covenant Medical Center. Ted Lederman was my family physician. I went in, went through the exam, urine test, and blood test, and then I was sent back out to the waiting room, anticipating to be discharged. The nurse came out and asked me to come back inside and sit in Dr. Lederman’s office. Lederman walked in and sat down. With a matter-of-fact calm manner, he announced that my blood test came back, with a fasting blood glucose reading of 227. “You have type 2 diabetes.” I cocked my head slightly, still confused at what he said to me. I have what?

As he spoke, I wasn’t paying attention at all. It wasn’t learning that I had diabetes that scared me….

…it was telling mom what he said is what scared the hell out of me.

This is what I was expecting when I got home…with diabetes in tow…

Lederman scheduled an appointment for me to see a certified diabetes educator for the following Monday. There goes a chance to play football. Mom’s going to kill me. No more sweets. I drove home. That 10 minutes back across town felt like 20 minutes.  My mind was wrapped around on how to tell my Mom and sister what’s wrong with me. It was bad enough to go through a divorce and getting remarried, but your child has a disease?

I pulled up, walked in and sat down on the stairs. Mom and my sister were waiting for me. The nurse beat me to the punch by calling mom and told her of my diagnosis. I forgot that I told the nurse to go ahead and tell mom, sparing me from dropping the equivalent of a family atomic bomb.

With an exasperated look, with a twinge of being upset, Mom said that we were going to work through this the best way we can. That soften the blow, but we knew that it was going to be a whole new world after the weekend was over.

Polly Eide was waiting for me when I walked into her office. As a certified diabetes educator (CDE), her job was to help newly diagnosed and current patients manage their diabetes. A CDE is usually the first line of support if your blood sugar was out-of-whack, wasn’t sure if a certain food was safe to indulge in, and how to balance a daily routine around diabetes.

The first lesson Polly taught me was how to check my blood glucose. She pulled out an One-Touch II meter. A gray hard-shell case, with a calculator-sized meter, a strange-looking pen-like device called a lancet, and a plastic container of test strips. I was frozen in fear as she took the lancet, primed it, and press the button for the lancet to prick her finger, drawing blood. I hated being poked for blood. I would scream bloody murder if a needle was within 2 feet of me.

After Polly tested herself, she told me to try it. I wiped my right middle finger with an alcohol swab, shook it dry, primed the lancet, and placed it on my finger. I kept flinching as I tried to press the button until Polly took the lancet out of my hand and drew the blood from my finger. How in the hell I’m going to handle pricking my finger like this all day? The next lesson was drawing and delivering insulin. Polly said that there were several ways to administer insulin: in the leg, arm (common area for injection), or in the abdomen. Being the wuss that I was, I chose the lesser of three evils. After all, with the love handles I had around my waist, I figured I could handle it without stabbing my leg or arm. We practiced drawing insulin from the vial, and injecting it into an orange.

If you ever wanted to learn how to give yourself a shot, practice with an orange. It’s the most common form of practice for diabetics.

As a way to show that I was brave and I could do it, I plunged the needle into the side of my abdomen slowly, took a few deep breaths, and then pushed the plunger, sending the cloudy like substance into my blood stream.

It was a different story at home. I would stand in the bathroom, upwards to 30 minutes, mentally coaxing myself to take that syringe, grab a pinch of skin to inject the insulin. I was beating myself up for coming down with this diabetes. My parents warned me to not eat so much food. Now, I was paying for it…for the rest of my life.

My father stopped by the house on Friday afternoon to pick my sister and I up for the weekend in Des Moines. There was still some acrimony my father had towards my mom. Mom, however, moved on, remarried, and had custody of my little sister and I. We hopped in the car and he started to drive. My sister nudged me a bit to tell him the news. I hesitated, so she went ahead and said it.

It was like I ruined his birthday weekend. My sister and I could only afford to get him a birthday card. He expected more. However, my diagnosis of diabetes was the buzz kill I don’t think he ever got over. It was because his father, my grandfather, had diabetes.

It was a big adjustment period when I got to Wartburg. I didn’t understand what subsidized and un-subsidized loans were, what my scholarship entailed and it’s requirements. Nor did I comprehend time management. I thought I knew how to study. Everything was overwhelming out of the gates. It was one long (four-year) learning curve. What wasn’t a learning curve was sneaking into the restroom, locking myself in a stall, checking my blood sugar and taking a shot, in private.

I only told a few people, but that was as close as I was in being open about it.

Twenty years of this has become a normal part of life. Life, on the hand, isn't always normal.
Twenty years of this has become a normal part of life. Life, on the hand, isn’t always normal.

There are 29.1 million Americans that live with diabetes. Out of that 29.1, 8.1 million Americans are unaware (or worst, denying the fact) that they are diabetic. Most people assume that diabetes is a man-made health issue. That’s not entirely true. Only part of it. A significant factor is hereditary. If a parent (or another family member) lives with diabetes the chances of you living with it increases. It’s affects skinny people, fat people, people regardless of race, sex, religion, class, and geography. It’s not just sitting on a couch and watching television all day, eating junk food, not being physically active, and playing X-Box. Diabetes affects people who are healthy and physically active. It’s knows no boundaries.

Diabetes is caused by your pancreas’ inability to produce some or no insulin to offset the levels of glucose (blood sugar) in your system. Insulin is the gas that keeps your body from running on empty…or a potential road trip to death.

The struggle with living with diabetes intensified after college. A groin infection and high blood sugar landed me in the hospital. I went through three endocrinologists at Mercy in a two-year span, not because I was a bad patient. Far from it. It was that they all decided to go into private practice.

Imagine one of these doors falling on you. Yeah, not a good feeling.

There was one night where I went to bed, and I woke up the following morning, in front of my closet door, with the one of the sliding closet doors off its hinges, on my back. I had a serious hypoglycemic episode during the night. The only recollection I had was rolling out of bed and trying to crawl, in my sleep, and my muscles froze. I laid there, having hallucinations in my sleep, talking out loud.

In 2011, there were 282,000 emergency room visits due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and 175,000 visits due to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Diabetes is a constant balancing act of numbers, blood, carbohydrates, protein, and other stuff. You can’t be too low and too high. It’s like trying to find that sweet spot on a baseball bat. When you know where that spot is, you’re assured of getting a base hit every time.

When your glucose is high, you feel lethargic and tired. Your mouth feel like someone stuff a bag of fruit-flavored cotton in it: it’s dry and have an awkward fruity smell. The blood in your body feels like it was replaced with oil sludge. You feel like crap. You’ll feel even worse when you test your glucose. 200…300….335…or higher. Low blood sugar is vastly different: a cold sweat, body shaking, you become irritable and cranky. You’re looking for juice, candy, any type of sugar to boost your glucose level back to normal. It’s like being drunk, without the alcohol.

I am not shy in admitting I was not a role model when it came to managing my diabetes. I’m also not shy in saying that I’ve been a survivor through this current recession.

But being a survivor nearly came at a cost.

(End of Part 1)

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