I developed diabetes my freshman year of high school. It began as a slow, gradual decline in energy levels. I don’t remember how long that lasted, but a month or so, at least. I can remember that the last weekend or two before I was diagnosed, I thought I had the flu or something like it. I didn’t eat. I just drank and drank and drank and read and did basically nothing.
By the day I was diagnosed, I thought I was dying. Mom had scheduled me for a doctor’s visit that afternoon, so I went to school anyway – our high school exempted you from finals if you had perfect attendance, plus I didn’t have a fever. I told my PE coach I felt sick and that I didn’t want to dress out. He yelled at me, saying that I either needed to go home or run laps, but that I wasn’t sitting out. He was a real pain in the butt about it – probably because I was one of those kids that hated PE and had no athletic talent, so I was beneath his notice. I told the coach how sick I felt, and he just sneered. I’m sure he thought I was being a whiny little wimp.
Because my onset was relatively gradual, I hadn’t truly noticed how sick I actually was. Moving required more energy than I could muster. I lost 20 to 30 lbs. in that month. My average weight throughout high school was around 125 lbs., so that’s a huge amount to lose. After school, we went to my family doctor. I don’t know what all tests he ran, but one of them was a blood sugar check. He told us that I had diabetes. He gave me an insulin shot, the first of many I’d have over the years. He told my mom to go home, pack a bag, and head straight to the Emergency Room at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, TN. That was about a 2.5 hour drive from our house. He said not to rush or panic, but not to waste time either. I had literally no idea what diabetes was. My brain was more or less in a fog, and I don’t think anything was setting in at all yet.
So we went home and packed. It was a Thursday. April 12, 1990. We had planned to go see my brother that night to help him celebrate his 21st birthday. He was away at college. Years later, I found out that Mom couldn’t reach him by phone. Frantic with the need to get on the road to Nashville, she eventually called the campus police and convinced them to track him down and tell him that I was in the hospital and that we weren’t coming. I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for him. This was before cell phones, so there wasn’t any other way to reach him.
Anyway, by this time, the insulin shot had kicked in. My blood sugar was down from wherever it had been, and I felt more human than I had in a long time. Mom, Dad, and I hit the road. About a third of the way there, we stopped for dinner. I remember eating a hamburger steak and fries at some truck stop on the interstate. I remember it was the best tasting meal I’d had in weeks, and probably the first I’d finished in weeks as well.
We got to Nashville. My doctor had told Vanderbilt that I was coming, but my room wasn’t ready yet. So we sat in the ER waiting room for hours. I don’t know how late it was when we were finally admitted. But my blood sugar was above 500 when they admitted me. My first full day in the hospital was Friday the 13th. It made my “anniversary” easy to remember.
The next few days were a blur of crash-course learning. I had to master how to check my blood sugar, how to administer shots, how to count food exchanges (that was the hardest; so much to memorize!). As my stay went on, the nurses got less and less friendly. By the end, they wanted me to get my crap together and get gone. At the time, I was kind of pissed that they were ignoring me and not helping and such. Part of me wonders now if they were trying to sort of passive-aggressively force me to learn it on my own, and not just ignoring me.
The hospital had a free long-distance phone in a toy room. So I was able to call my friends. I had visitors, which was awesome. And I remember seeing other children in the hospital who were battling other illnesses. My initial drop into self-pity was cut short by seeing someone several years younger than me. She was battling cancer. It was the first time I’d ever seen what chemo does to a person. That put my situation into a different perspective for me.
Mom stayed with me and dad visited, giving mom a chance to leave when she could. I found out years later that when she would go out to smoke (it was a decade or so before she and Dad quit), she would also cry. But she never cried in front of me. Not once.
I remember my brother came to visit. He was there when the nurses taught me how to give myself shots. They had me practice on oranges because the peel’s resistance was similar to skin. My parents had to give shots too. My brother did as well. He was trying to show out for the nurses in an obvious effort to flirt. They were having none of it.
When I was admitted, I had just started reading Stephen King’s The Stand. I read a few pages while I was in the hospital, but I had to put it down. It was over a year before I could start the book over. I just couldn’t read a book about a deadly super-flu while I was in the hospital. It was too much.
I was in the hospital from Thursday night through the next Monday. It was Easter weekend, so I only missed one day of school, I think. I came back with a letter from the hospital explaining that I was diabetic and in very broad strokes what that meant for my teachers. That PE coach? He literally could not have cared less about my illness or what it meant to him as a teacher. I’ve rarely met a more heartless teacher in my educational history. I could’ve gotten a more sympathetic response from a driveway pebble. He went on to become an elementary school principal. I sincerely hope he found compassion and empathy along the way.