When I was a child I remember seeing saccharine in the grocery stores and being told that there were people who could not eat sugar. I was told that these people used saccharine instead. I was told that they could not eat ice cream or cookies and that there were candies with saccharine that they could eat. Sugarless candy and gum – I remember thinking how unpleasant that all sounded. I did not know anyone like that. Later, I remember hearing that my cousin Art was diabetic but I never talked much about it or thought much about the greater implications for his life. Later, in graduate school, my housemate David was Diabetic. He used used syringes on the kitchen bulletin board instead of push-pins. In this way we were all somewhat included in his disease. Beyond that, I never knew how his disease affected him or what measures he had to take to maintain his health and I wasn’t aware just what a difficult job maintaining good health was for a Diabetic. 25 years later I lost 25 pounds in 6 months without dieting. I didn’t think much about it because I had always been thin. It was the severe dizzy spells that took me to the doctor. All of a sudden I was one of those people who could not eat sugar, only it is not just sugar, nearly everything that we eat and do affects our “BG”. BG is the magic number – our Blood Sugar level. A cracker, a carrot, a cup of tea, walking the dog, sleeping, a stressful phone call – literally everything makes this level go up or down and there is a very small window of healthy. Healthy Blood Sugar range is 75-125. That stressful phone call can shoot that level up from 100 to 200. Forgetting a meal and that level can drop to 38 and send the Diabetic into a coma. When I tried to explain to my doctor, who is also Type 1 Diabetic, the feeling of a BG of 38, he said, “like a feeling of impending doom?” and that was spot on. I think of this as living on a see-saw, a constant balancing. Your BG drops too low, eat a little sugar, too high, take more insulin – but not too much insulin or you will drop back down to impending doom.

When I became Diabetic 2 years ago, the advancements in treatment had reached a point where my doctor tells me that, if I am careful with my BG, I should have none of the complications suffered by Diabetics for so long. These complications are dreadful and potentially fatal, from blindness, to kidney failure, poor circulation causing amputations, heart disease. I have an insulin pump and my ever faithful and constant companion BG Meter. These two technical must haves keep my sugar fairly well regulated but they are not foolproof. At least once a day my BG goes way too high or drops dangerously low even though I try to be extremely careful. Twenty-five years ago, when my housemate was trying to keep his BG stable, he was, for the most part, guessing. He had to guess how much insulin to take, guess what his BG was.

I was shocked how ignorant I was of the ramifications of a diagnosis of Diabetes and I was shocked that most people are equally ignorant. One day I was at the pharmacy counter picking up Insulin. My BG bottomed out, must have been around 40, and I told the woman at pharmacy counter. She looked at me blankly. She had no idea that I needed help and I was shocked that someone working at the pharmacy counter would have no understanding of the needs of Diabetics. She could easily have offered me some help in the way of a candy, soda or glucose tablets and at the very least, offered me a chair. On the verge of passing out, I had to go out to my car to find a bottle of soda. A Diabetic whose BG has bottomed out needs immediate help and precious few people know this. Even as I write this, I am aware that my BG is dropping and needs attention. I just checked it and it is 62, not so bad - I will have a few ounces of soda and it should come back up.

I am hopeful that someday soon we will have a cure for Diabetes. It is not so important for me. I am older and able to maintain my health. For children and teenagers, who are typically stricken with Type 1 Diabetes, this is a much more difficult situation. Diabetes requires a lifetime commitment to round the clock vigilance and care - a daunting task for kids and a bore for adults.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, CT
January 2010

Diabetes and the death of a ten year old

A diabetics tool kit is a modern marvel. Hook yourself, get an accurate reading, adjust as needed. Jean's experience can easily become the start of a walking 20 miles to school, through the 36 inch snow, up hill to and from, but these pages are a place to understand how culture changes and reacts to events, including the advances of science. Jean was lucky to escape the knowledge of blood sugar levels until later in life.

In the late 50's, diabetes taught me about the fragility of life. We had a circle of friends that could be counted on for vigorous, outside activity. Among the most athletic was a boy who stopped arriving for school.

What happened? He did not wake up this morning.

What? He was diabetic.

He was never sick, How? He forgot his orange juice before bed last night.

I could not ask enough questions or get the answers that would allow a ten year old to deal with the notion that death was for everyone, not just grandparents. Fifth graders really do play baseball on Saturday and die on Sunday. Today, people say cancer but we hear "grim reaper". When I was ten, diabetes immediately gained that tone.

Oddly, the cure was Sports Illustrated. I read an article about Bill Talbert that described how he dealt with diabetes and still won international level competitions. The article held him in appropriate (at least to my mind) awe both for his on court abilities and his facing the obstacle of competing on that level while dealing with the disease. The magazine that would become famous for swimsuits, was in this case a step in my learning to accept death as a part of life.

Jean told me of her near miss on the day the World Trade Center was attacked and I nodded. When she told me she had diabetes, I remembered my friend from the fifth grade and heard the banshee. I understand that the technology she has available makes it unlikely that she will "forget her orange juice" but I remember the day that my friend did not wake up.

Lee McGavin
Leander, TX

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