The telephone rang one afternoon in that once-upon-time before cell phones or answering machines. It was my boyfriend, Tom, calling from the hospital in the college town of Normal. He was okay, he said, but in the hospital. He and a friend had been shopping at a store in the small downtown area near campus. One moment, he was looking at something on a shelf, the next, he awoke in the hospital emergency room, having gained the prestige of being the first person to be transported in the town’s shiny new ambulance. A doctor was looming over him when he finally opened his eyes. Tom may tell you this part of the story at some point, but, I will interject here that there was an interesting connection to MASH, the television series popular at the time, and the man who suddenly became Tom’s doctor.
When Tom first went on insulin in 1969, a glucose monitor was an unheard of device for monitoring one’s blood sugar levels. A urine strip could give a reading of sorts, but, not one that was accurately up-to-the-minute. It would be more than twenty years before such a medical device would come into life, bringing far greater control of his condition. (I have high praises for the space program from which so many medical advancements have emerged from.)
Insulin reactions, aka low blood sugar, are serious medical matters that can render a Type I diabetic unconscious – or dead. To complicate things, at this point, a diabetic’s breath can take on the smell of alcohol and their behavior may become erratic with slurred speech and confusion. Diabetics suffering insulin reactions were often left lying in the street, or hauled off to jail to “sleep it off”, only to be found dead later. In fact, they still are.
It is, dear reader, a brittle condition. For some, like Tom, experiencing low blood sugars can come out of the blue, no matter what foods were ingested, whether idle or active, asleep or awake. Type I diabetics carry candy, glucose tables, and extra food with them these days to counter insulin reactions. Circa 1970, this wasn’t always the case. In the ’70s, a young man, arms flailing and erratic, taking down store shelves while collapsing, would easily be mistaken for a drug user. Fortunately, Tom’s friend knew his sudden behavior had something to do with diabetes and called for help.
I dropped whatever it was I was doing when Tom called, hopped into my 1963 Gold Dodge Dart, clattered over the wooden bridge and into the Normal hospital to see him, now in a hospital room, where he remained for several days as a new protocol was begun in controlling his condition, one of the first steps on a long journey of diabetes management. His parents hurried down. His mom went out to get a medical tag, which Tom wears to this day. Gum drops and butterscotch were suddenly nestled into pockets, and became the fodder for other stories along the way, as a young man jumped another hurdle in what he himself calls a high maintenance sport.
If I can draw one moral out of this, it would be to not judge a person you know to have diabetes, especially Type I, if he or she is suddenly slurping a Coke or chomping on a donut as if it was the Last Supper. Try not to say “should you be eating that?”. Instead, a simple “how are you?” would be appropriate. They may, actually, need your help – and I promise you, at this point, they do not need a lecture on why they shouldn’t be eating something sweet, their own MASH unit dangling from their hip pocket.