The first time I experienced low blood sugar, I thought I was dying. I was an eleven-year-old child still in the hospital being “stabilized” after my initial diagnosis of Type I diabetes when I felt the “rush.” This rush that takes breath away was like a free fall.
Imagine the face of a sheer cliff, and though the “fingertips” of the brain scramble frantically in search of a hold, there seems to be nothing to catch onto. Space and air. Internally, there seems to be some dramatic drop in the barometric pressure of each cell in the body. The diabetic is falling or sinking and the insides become weak, the mind distracted. At least, I finally managed to find and push the nurse’s button.
I want to reassure people that I consider myself a lucky diabetic because I can actually feel a low blood sugar coming on. In addition, if I am having low blood sugar during the night, I automatically wake up. I have been informed by fellow patients that those new to diabetes have a harder time feeling a low coming on; thus, the danger. I have heard so many stories from parents whose children are suffering lows at night, but not waking up, that even I grow terrified for all. As I have grown “tighter,” I have noticed that lows can come on more suddenly—these days, one just feels disoriented and in some “wrong space.” It’s a “not tracking” feeling. It’s just so important to remember, diabetics often need to eat sugar. Pronto!
Normal blood sugar levels are said to range between 70-120. Glucometers for testing blood sugar were not available in the world of my childhood, but the lowest blood sugar most today’s blood testers will measure is 30. Thirty and then my machine flahes: LO, LO, LO. Too much insulin; the diabetic is overdosing! O.D.! A diabetic then needs to get his or her sugar level up immediately. Or what?
If glucose tablets or fruit juice are not administered, what can follow all too quickly is a loss of consciousness, later convulsions and even death. Glucose tablets can be purchased in any drugstore. The tablet dissolves immediately in the mouth, and therefore, sugar bypasses digestion, immediately hitting the blood stream. However, any sugar can do the trick, though orange juice is usually recognized as the fastest home remedy, or a glucagon shot if the diabetic has passed out. (Glucagon emergency kits are now available for home use for the diabetic today; again, not in my childhood.)
I have no real memory of my first reported low blood sugar outside of a medical setting, but to this day, I feel embarrassment if I remember the tales I’ve been told. Evidently, I’d been playing at home on the front porch swing when I turned violently on a young girlfriend. I was told neighbors actually had to help drag me from underneath the swing then as I’d screamed quite clearly that I WAS NOT going back to that hospital! I was also told I became violent in the emergency room, slapping at nurses and knocking a urine specimen across the shiny hospital floor. The story of my behavior mortified me, and I was sure that in our small town, the story of my “fit” was spreading like wildfire.
Childhood friends have since shared with me a couple of lows that turned into convulsions and/or a frightening event of some sort. Frightening to them; fortunately, I have no memory of these times. Still, I usually came out of episodes without hospitalization. Just a little bit of sugar. Not to worry, I have suffered nothing this serious since very young adulthood. The point is that such episodes are socially embarrassing—very important to young adults and teens.
Still, it is not uncommon for the public to think that diabetes is caused by eating too much sugar. Not wanting anyone to make a big deal about policing my sugar, I used to try to bear low blood sugar panics until I could manage to be alone. However, there I’d be, smack dab in the middle of a quiet study hall or a church service as the telltale weakness and sweaty flush of heat crept over me in a place where others were not even allowed to chew gum! I just so did not want to feel be noticed, even envied as I struggled with crackling candy wrappers. Early on I actually thought it better to just sit quietly and concentrate on NOT sweating or fainting. I must look and act “normal.”
To all sugar police: Never chastise a diabetic for eating too much to overcome a low blood sugar. The medical advice to take glucose tabs or drink half a Coke and then sitting for twenty minutes will not do it for most. This is because my reaction to that advice is, “You have got to be kidding me!” You want me to sit quietly while I’m disappearing behind my own face? Thank you, but I don’t want one bite, but the whole candy bar; not one cookie but a dozen and not just one sip of orange juice. I’ll swallow the whole glass. My favorite sugar is chocolate or cookies, though these take some time to digest and enter the blood stream. A good thing about an insulin pump is then, that the diabetic can also compensate for the intake of way too many calories.
Diabetes is a serious illness. Diabetics can live a “normal” life, and yet that daily life often conceals the real possibility of sudden death. Still, the vast majority of children and adults do manage to stay “in control” and save themselves and others. To this day, I am told I have remarkable powers of concentration. People say I portray “calm” itself. I’d say rather that I see no use in hysteria. Mine or yours. The child I was learned early on, and the adult remembers that hysteria is deadly or silly. Most diabetics, and many other “victims of illness,” are also simply not desirous of pity and we try so hard not to need help. Anything, to retain our self-respect as “healthy” human-beings, “cool” teens, or self-assured and proficient professionals. Maybe if our society could better encourage rational adults to use the words “help me,” we’d have more happy endings to stories. As a diabetic, I have always felt as if my life has been spent in trying to keep “my balance.” Balance in more ways than one! And I wish for the children suffering now that they could enjoy a life more carefree than mine has been.
I can see how insulin delivery was the most natural or sensible thing to study early on, but are there not also other methods and areas to study on the way to finding a cure for diabetes? I’m not enough of a scientist to know. Just asking and willing to listen and learn. JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), among others, is sponsoring so many far-reaching treatments, including a biological cure. Of course, it’s a relief not to have cancer and as good as my life has sometimes been, I just don’t think one more child should face my path: managing T1D for 53 years and counting. The new motto: Type One to Type None.