How I Met President Obama (and fainted): The True Story

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One week ago today I stood behind President Obama and fainted as he addressed the nation on the Affordable Care Act.  This is  a very long account, in excruciating detail, of how I came to meet the President. No one person will likely make it through all of this, I fear, so I added section headings for your convenience. Feel free to skip to the parts you care about!

 

Karmel Allison with President Obama

The Invitation

On Friday morning, my plan was to extract spleens from three mice, isolate dendritic and T cells, stain, and co-culture the cells. I would collect on Monday and analyze using the flow cytometer. In the meantime, over the weekend, I would sit down and force myself to write out responses to the reviews I had just received back on a paper I submitted– a task I was by no means looking forward to.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, indeed.

On Friday around noon, I happened to check my email while my cells were spinning in the centrifuge. I had received an email the prior week from a representative of the American Diabetes Association (ADA), expressing her appreciation for the blog post I had recently written about the Affordable Care Act; I had thanked her for her kind words, and now saw a response. Rather than a generic, “Sure thing!” what I saw was an invitation– my blog post had been passed by a director at the ADA to a contact at the White House, who wanted to invite me to an event at the White House on Monday!

“The White House!” I thought. “How cool would that be!” But I kept reading, and there was more — the President would be speaking about the Affordable Care Act, I would be standing with the President, and I might even get to meet him!

And then my brain hits pause. “This Monday? I have cells to collect! I need to be here Monday.”

“Self, the cells will wait. When someone invites you to come meet the President, you don’t say no.”

The day was frantic to begin with, as I was rushing to get my cells cultured before a meeting at 1:30. Now, I was also running back and forth to my computer, and checking my phone at every opportunity. Emails were traded; the ADA would pay for my travel. By the way, I’m pregnant, but only 20 weeks, so traveling should be fine. Can my husband come? He’s a crucial part of my diabetes care team! We can get him in to the audience at the event, but can’t pay for his travel. How long do you want to stay? If I fly back Monday evening, I can still collect my cells on Tuesday. Less than 24 hours in Washington DC seems like a shame, but such is the pain of short notice. The hotel is booked! The flight is booked! Now to find a dress for my pregnant self in less than 24 hours!

Arriving in DC

We awoke at 4:30 AM on Sunday morning to pack and head to the airport. Even with my printed boarding pass, I had a slight, half-joking worry that I would arrive at the airport and be told the ticket was no good; this was an extremely elaborate phishing scam, and now someone claiming to be the ADA had my Social Security number. But everything went smoothly, and I even found that TSA agents are friendlier if you’re visibly pregnant. Bonus. My husband and I joke about trying to cut in the security line– “Excuse us! We’re on the way to meet the President!” and about the relative likelihood that this would actually happen — “Sorry, but there was an incident in Syria. The speech has been canceled.” While waiting for the plane, we read all the comments and emails from friends and family who are excited for us– meeting the President! My brother had joked that it might be the coolest thing any one of us siblings had done to date; I corrected him– it is perhaps the closest-to-celebrity thing, but, hey, our older brother is a pilot in the Air Force. That’s hard to beat.

I remarked to my husband that I felt sort of silly; all this attention for being very lucky. I didn’t labor for months and years over that blog post– I wrote down what I was feeling at that moment. It just so happened that it struck a chord with a lot of people, it seemed, and was in the right place at the right time. And it just so happened that there was a speech that needed a backdrop, and that I was selected for that. No great accomplishment on my part. I felt lucky, not proud– and in fact, all told, would probably be much happier if I could just get that darn paper I was submitting accepted in some journal!

(Now, in a moralistic view of the universe, this might be seen as the cause of the ensuing events. I say to God, “This is awesome! Thanks! But it’s strange of you to land this good fortune on me!” And He responds, “What– you feel you need to work for it? Fine, I’ll make you do some work for it.”)

We land in Baltimore at around 6 PM, Eastern Time. We are picked up by one of the representatives from the ADA, and are thrilled to find she is fun and funny. The drive into DC takes a while, but is still very exciting for me; this was my first time in DC, and really my first time on the East Coast north of Florida. So much greenery, and leaves beginning to change color! Two deer, one of which was dead. And as we approach the city, we begin to pick out the famous landmarks and sites. The Washington Monument is draped in scaffolding, like chain mail.

We drop our things off at the hotel, about 15 minutes outside of the city, and then head into the city to catch a few sights before the night is done. Given the tight schedule of the trip, we know we won’t be able to see much, but I figure it will be a while before I’m back in DC, and I should at least see a few things! We get dinner at a Lincoln-themed restaurant with a floor assembled from over 800,000 pennies, and then head to the Lincoln Memorial. Truly beautiful– glowing marble, and the Gettysburg Address carved into the walls. My husband and I discuss the relative paucity of overt Biblical references in Presidential speeches nowadays as compared to how prevalent they are in the Address. We turn around, and there is the Washington Monument, and the famous pool that I associate with many protests throughout American history. After a little while, I’m cold– though I’m told this is the finest weather DC has ever had at this time — and I’m tired after a day of flying. We head back to the hotel and try to sleep despite the time change and undercurrent of excitement about the coming day.

The White House

The drive into DC in the morning is a trip back in time as I try to recall facts I learned in high school. The Jefferson Memorial! He was big on the rotundas. All roads lead in to the Capitol, designed to be like Rome by some guy whose name I’ve forgotten (Benjamin something?). Ionic columns everywhere, not so stoic as Dorian or so exuberant as Corinthian. My, the Pentagon casts quite a shadow. Per capita, there are way more suits in DC than in San Diego. And way fewer flip flops. Streets are closed, with police protecting some important dignitary at a famous hotel. The city is pretty; not so oppressive as Chicago. Apparently, no building can be taller than the Washington Monument, and no building can obscure a view of the Monument. So many old buildings! So much marble! In Southern California, if it was built before 1950, it’s considered ancient.

We park as close as we can to the White House, and our friend with the ADA explains that I will have to go into one entrance, and she and my husband will go to another. We circle around the White House for a little, trying to find the entrance. The White House! We stop for a photo in front, and wait for a gaggle of teens in school uniforms to clear out. One girl stops beside my husband and me as we wait for the kids to clear out, gives a grin full of braces and says, “Selfie!” as she snaps a photo with her arm around us. I giggle; teenagers! Such a strange species.

All this time, the velcro holster I strapped around my thigh that morning to hold my insulin pump is sliding down my leg as I walk. Not good. I’m holding it on as we walk, trying to stop and adjust, but it’s not sticking in place. This I will need to fix before getting on stage, lest I embarrass myself with a pump sidling down my leg!

We find the entrance for me, and part ways. I enter through a guardroom; they verify my name and identity, and send me through a metal detector. They hand me a visitor badge, and tell me I’m good to go. I stand at the door for a minute. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Not a clue.”

“Just walk across, over to that building with the big columns. See it?” “Got it! Thanks!” And all of the sudden I’m walking across the White House grounds, feeling like I’m breaking some rule. Should they just be letting me wander around? It’s strangely quiet and peaceful. Someone comes out of the doors of the columned building; “Karmel? Am I saying that right?” and I’m whisked into the White House. People are gathered, and a few introductions are made. I find a restroom as quickly as possible. I tighten and readjust my makeshift pump garter. A little uncomfortably tight, but it will hold, and it’s hidden. Phew.

Back in the gathering room, there are about twenty people, and I can’t tell who anyone is. Are these all White House staffers? Should I recognize anyone? Who else will be standing on stage, and why were they invited? Should I try to mingle? All these people seem to know what they are doing; am I the only one suffering from impostor syndrome here? Oh man, what’s going to happen if I get low? How am I supposed to do this with no continuous glucose monitor (CGM), which I will not be able to hide in my dress? What if I get low? Low I can probably tough it through. What if I get high? Do I just keep standing there on stage? It will only be half an hour, probably, at most; that won’t hurt my baby, right? Is it obvious that I’m pregnant to strangers? Does this dress look okay?

Luckily, I am quickly saved from my self-doubt as we are directed into a meeting room with a large table and large leather chairs. Ten or so of us are invited to sit; we are the invited guests, to be standing behind the President. We will wait here for a bit, practice going out on the stage so that we know what to expect. The President will come out of the Oval Office before the speech, and come around to meet us all. Then we go on. It will be a longer speech than usual– really long, 20 or 25 minutes. Does anyone feel uncomfortable about that? Make sure not to lock your knees! We don’t want anyone becoming ill, so if you have any concerns, please let us know.

I of course at this point think, 20 or 25 minutes? That’s not that long at all! Who wouldn’t be able to stand there for 20 or 25 minutes? God laughs.

We are in the Roosevelt Room; the Oval Office is next door. Teddy Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize, and there it is.

While we wait, we gathered ten chat; where are you from? Why were you selected? When were you told? Most people are from the DC area, with a few from other states. Most are small businesspeople who have taken advantage of the Affordable Care Act already. A few students, and a pharmacist representing CVS. We were all told Friday– is it normal to get so little notice? Apparently. Janice was told yesterday she would be introducing the President, and had prepared a few words. Did you sleep at all? Brave. Nervous. Her speech would be printed and on the podium. Janice runs a dog kennel in Delaware. The group chats about dogs and Congress and the wide-ranging effects of the shutdown. We chat about how weird it is not to have cell phones to turn to (they were all placed in little cubbies before entering the Roosevelt Room). I laugh about the fact that all the staffers are using Blackberries– Blackberries! I haven’t seen one of those in California for years! A dozen people standing there, tapping away on their Blackberries, and we have no cell phones to distract ourselves with; we’ve been transported back in time, we joke.

Throughout all of this, I am keeping a close eye on my blood sugar. I start to head down, and eat a low-carb snack bar. I lament that I don’t have a perfect idea of how this will all be timed, and that my body thinks it’s three hours earlier; I can’t rely on my normal tendencies and trends to predict where I’m going to head. I take 8 grams of corrective carbs as well, just in case.

Time to practice. We are directed outside the room, down a hallway, to the Rose Garden nearby. You can leave your purses; this is the White House. The teleprompters are scrolling the Gettysburg Address, which I presume is the teleprompter version of Lorem Ipsum. They will be safe. Out on the steps in the Rose Garden, we self-arrange by approximate height, shorter people in front. This results in all women in the front row, and all men in the back. The staffers rearrange us a bit, attempting to achieve some balance of color and height. I am placed directly behind the podium on stage right. I lament internally that I will be right behind the rather tall President– no one will see me! And I chide myself — have you grown so vain that it’s not enough to be on stage behind the President? You must be in clear view of the camera to be happy? Here again, God laughs.

Remember where you’re standing, and remember to part when the President and Janice walk through!

Back inside; my blood sugar has turned and is heading up. 85 mg/dL. Good. Unless it’s heading up too quickly? A few more minutes and I’m in the low nineties. I bolus a little bit of insulin for the food I had eaten earlier.

Now we’re almost there! Let’s have you all stand around the table, in the order you’ll be heading out there. Valerie Jarrett enters the room, and goes around the circle, introducing herself. I recognize the name. Kathleen Sebelius follows, in a lavender blazer. She asks where each of us from, shaking hands all along the way. She doesn’t introduce herself, though, and several of us whisper around– who is she? “Obviously important enough to not require an introduction!” I remark. Someone has seen her speak before; it’s Kathleen Sebelius, she says. Ah! The name I know; I’ve just never seen her before.

And then! The President! Coming through the door that connects the Oval Office and the Roosevelt Room. As he enters the room, it feels surreal for a moment, as my brain says, But wait– shouldn’t there be a TV screen separating us? I note that he looks remarkably similar to how he looks on television; there is no shock of, “Gee, he looks so much more [fill in the blank] in person.” He makes his way around the room, shaking hands and collecting names. He calls me Carmela. Close enough! I rack my brain for something clever to say that will make me memorable to him; nothing. I let the moment go, recording on my mental chalkboard– I met the President! Shook his hand! What fortune and fame!

The Faint

President Obama Catches Karmel Allison

 

And it’s time! Last blood glucose check — 97 mg/dL. I take a half unit of insulin, not wanting to go up during the speech. We walk out, in order. I find my place, hoping I won’t be too hidden. Is my dress okay? Is my bra showing? Don’t lock your knees!

We part the waters as the President and Janice come down. Janice approaches the podium and reads her speech. It is printed in Comic Sans. Weird. She does well; I am impressed. I ponder whether I could give a speech in front of the nation on such short notice. The President begins. There are two hundred people sitting out on plastic folding chairs, and rows of cameras behind. Nice cameras. Giant cameras. One cameraman is sitting on top of a twelve foot ladder. Yikes. I scan the audience, looking for my husband and my friends at the ADA. I don’t see the ADA representatives, but soon enough I find my husband, smiling, iPhone held up. I grin; conveniently, he is right below the President’s ear in my view. That will work well.

I listen to the speech, making sure to smile. I always notice in speeches when the backdrop people start to look bored, and I giggle. I will smile, even if it seems weird! I think. I watch the teleprompter, and the back of the President’s head, and my husband. I think that tall dude in the front is the Secretary of Education? What’s his name? A lot of the offhand remarks during the speech are not on the teleprompter; whoever is manning the teleprompter pauses the text while the President remarks that people are getting healthcare for less than a cell phone bill, and joking about old people like himself. I consider the politics of it all. What do I feel about the botching of the website rollout? I’m surprised anyone is surprised; can you name a single government website that works well? The only one I can think of is Obama’s campaign website– which was built before he became encumbered by the Great American Bureaucracy. This isn’t about Obama or Sebelius or the Democrats or Republicans; this is a problem endemic to large, unwieldy institutions. There’s something comforting in that, though; streamlined websites require a little bit of autocracy to build with such efficiency. If the government were too good at building effective technology, it could quickly graduate to totalitarianism. With all the recent concern about the NSA, I much prefer the government to be a little bit technologically inept.

The speech is good, I think; he makes the crucial point, which is that all this fighting over the Affordable Care Act was not about a website. I consider the digital divide, and hope that there are already alternate means of signing up for healthcare. Indeed there are; the President lists them off, including a phone number. I worry for a minute that he won’t actually give out the phone number, and instead will just say, It’s on the website. But he gives it out. And repeats it. I am relieved. Ironically, he is mocked for the infomercial-like quality of this later, but I think it would be unfair to the many people who are not always online to not give it out in a very public forum.

And as the President continues, I see the sun begin to come out. I am pleased; it’s kind of chilly for my San Diego self. The sun spreads slowly over us, from stage left to right. It finally reaches me, and I enjoy the warmth for a moment. Then it hits me. Suddenly, stars. Shit, I think, that’s not good. No stars! Go away! This has happened before; even before pregnancy, I have always had low blood pressure. My dad does too; it’s one of those things that can be mildly annoying, but I figure I will benefit in the end when everyone else is worrying about hypertension. It is not unusual for me to get dizzy if I stand up too quickly in the cold, and if my blood pressure is taken at the doctor’s office, the machine occasionally gives up the first time around. “80 over 40,” the nurse often says, “That must be wrong. Is that normal for you?” I have fainted maybe a handful of times in my life, including last Christmas, as I stood up to hug my husband and he lifted me into the air.

Stars. Not good. Focus. Breathe deeply. They will pass. The President has already said “In conclusion.” I’m almost there. Hold on.

The stars multiply. Uhoh. Not good. Hold on. Two “In conclusions”? What? Please, finish soon! Please, God, don’t let me faint! I’m so close! Lighter and lighter headed. I reach out to the woman standing next to me and grab her hand, hoping to stabilize myself. She seems to realize that something is wrong. Hold on, self!

I must not have held on. The next thing I knew, I was looking at the President, but his face, not the back of his head. “You’re going to be okay.” Uhoh. What just happened? Someone from behind pulled me off stage, walked me quickly back to hallway at the entrance of the Rose Garden. Sitting. Water, cold water. Orange Crush, in case you’re low. Am I low? I shouldn’t be low; I was going up. Can I get my purse? Next to a white jacket. Yes, I’m feeling better now that I’m sitting. I am so sorry. My husband is out there — can someone get him?

Karmel in WhiteHouse ClinicA medic, and the White House doctor is coming. Lots of water. My purse, the brown one. Measure my blood glucose. 140 mg/dL. Not hypoglycemic. That at least is a relief. Dear God, did I just faint on stage? I will go get her husband. No, he’s here already– he found his way back. Boy am I happy to see him. Are you okay? Are you low? I’m okay; lightheaded. 140 — not low! Was it bad? I ask. Was it visible? Did anyone see? The President stopped his speech to help you. I’m pretty sure it was visible. Oh man. Oh no. Wow, I am so embarrassed. Wow. Did that really just happen? I am so sorry. Had you eaten? Was it low blood sugar? No no, I had eaten, I wasn’t low.

The President! I wish I could remember better what exactly he said, but this part is all a haze. Are you okay? Yes, just got a little light headed, I think. My husband introduces himself; later he will explain the sense that he should be focused on meeting the President, but all he can think is, Is my wife okay? My heart melts.

Once I am okay enough to stand, we are taken back to the White House clinic by the White House doctor. A small room, with marble floors and minimal medical equipment. They take my blood pressure and pulse; ninety-some over sixty-some, and fifty-some, rising to 66 BPM. All normal for me; the pulse a little fast, but that’s probably because now I’m shocked at what just happened. I still don’t have my phone, but David is already fielding calls; my mom has been texting, and she knows I’m okay. An unknown number — Jessica, my editor here, calls. Another unknown number– CNN wants to talk to you. What? Are you joking? Wow, this just got weirder. Wow, I can’t believe I just fainted on national television. I am so embarrassed.

The White House physician gets serious: it sounds like this was just a question of maybe dehydration, and the sun, and lightheadedness. But it’s his job to consider the worst case scenario. And it could be some sort of internal bleeding, or something wrong with the baby. (Oh please, God, that’s impossibly unlikely, right? Please? Anything but that!) Watch closely how you feel; if you feel any cramping or pain or abdominal discomfort at all, I advise you don’t fly, and go to a hospital immediately.

Yikes. But I feel no pain, and feel much better now that I am hydrated and have sat for a while. I think we’re okay, but will definitely keep an eye on it.

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Media Queen for a Day

Did you guys drive here? No, we came with friends from the ADA. They are in contact with my husband, and are waiting outside the gates for us. I get my phone back. Texts and phone calls already piling up. Uhoh. Emails. Tons of emails.

We get lunch with our friends from the ADA, and I have reached the point of laughing about it all. Wow, he stopped his speech? How far was I from the end? Oh wow. You think everyone saw? That was unexpected. Wow. How did you even get backstage to see me so quickly? As lunch continued, we all excused ourselves for checking our phones so often– the calls and texts and emails were rolling in. Several people from CNN. Who was talking to whom? Local San Diego papers. Diabetics emailing. Friends and family — are you okay? Several people noting they saw me standing right behind the President, and I laughed realizing they hadn’t watched to the end of the speech where I fainted on national television. Overwhelmed, and my blood sugar showed it– the adrenaline pushing me up despite tons of insulin flowing in.

And then the question that the day had turned to: do I respond? Am I willing to talk to these people? Despite writing a blog, I am a rather shy person. Do I really want to expose myself like that? It is a good opportunity to talk about why I was at the White House in the first place: the Affordable Care Act, diabetes, and pre-existing conditions; but I’m a scientist, not a public speaker. Then again, you only get your fifteen minutes once. And, my husband is here with me, and damn he looks good in a suit. Besides, no matter what I said, everyone would forget about me by Tuesday, and this would only come up once a year at Thanksgiving when my family teases me about the time I fainted in front of the President. Unless I manage to do or say something even more embarrassing. But, hey, at the end of the day — YOLO. Let’s do this, I concluded.

We needed a battle plan, and I needed to take off my shoes. I only had the one dress, so a change of clothes wasn’t really an option. The representative at the ADA found us a meeting room at a nearby law office to use, and we began to triage emails and calls. First order of business was ensuring worried family and friends I was doing just fine. Next was figuring out who I should be talking to. Before I knew it, I was agreeing to phone and Skype interviews. My husband was keeping track of who I spoke to, and who I promised to speak to — but I was pretty quickly overwhelmed, and just let the tide of excitement carry me.

The biggest thing to remember, I was told, is that they’re going to try to ask you about what it’s like to be caught by the President and so on; don’t worry about what they ask you — just answer the question you wished they had asked you. Sounds like holiday dinners at my parents’ house; I’m pretty sure I can handle that.

Still, each time I spoke to someone, I was nervous– how did I get here? What am I doing? Am I crazy? What if I manage to embarrass myself further, or embarrass the ADA? I just kept telling myself no one would remember by tomorrow morning, and no one would listen to these interviews except my mother, so I was okay.

Emails from strangers flooded in. Most were concerned and sympathetic; some were accusatory. Very quickly, I was a gif, stuck forever in a loop of being caught. I still hadn’t seen the video, or the end of the President’s speech, or any of the pictures of me behind him, and I didn’t want to– I could hold my own as long as I didn’t think too hard about myself on stage.

A fortunate coincidence — at the start of this trip, I happened to be about 90% of the way through Dave Eggers’s new book, The Circle. It’s great — I highly recommend it — and it just so happens to include a number of scenes in which lives are unwittingly thrown open to a public forum. It could be worse! I thought, and I don’t have to feel bad about all the comments flowing past me that I can’t respond to; that’s just the way of the world now.

My first phone interview went well. My husband, ever by my side, assured me I sounded coherent and confident, despite how I felt. I managed to stick my story in there– why I cared about the Affordable Care Act, the fact that I was a diabetic– and didn’t lose all my words, as tends to happen when I get too nervous. Everyone was friendly, congratulatory, sympathetic, curious. One after the other, and next thing I knew CNN was asking if I would go on Piers Morgan that night. They would pay to have the flights moved to the next morning.

Television? That’s a whole different ballgame. No one will see it, right? Except my mother? I’ve never seen the show; there can’t be that many viewers. You only live once…

At some point, in my red dress and teal tennis shoes, I left the war room to go to the restroom. The law office we were in had quite a bit of security, and during the afternoon, the receptionist had switched out. As I was returning to the room, the new receptionist stopped me — “Excuse me,” he said. “Yes?” I replied, expecting to have to explain whom I was with, and what I was doing. “Are you the woman who was standing next to the President? And fainted?”

I laughed. “Yeah… that was me.”

“Oh wow, I thought so. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, doing fine now– just a little embarrassed and overwhelmed by all the sudden attention!” Well, I thought I would be getting a brief tour of the Library of Congress right about now. The best laid plans of mice and men, and how!

I soon decided I couldn’t respond to everyone, or all the requests. I chose somewhat haphazardly, I admit. The hundreds of unread Twitter and Facebook messages I just marked as read, and decided they would have to be ignored. Emails that went to the inbox normally reserved for promotional and social network messages were also ignored. My apologies if you were in there!

I was on for Piers Morgan at 9:00. I worried a little about whether I would be able to stay awake and coherent to that point. Around 5, we decided to head back to the hotel so that I could shower and clean up. I would have to wear the same dress on the show, but at least I would have a few minutes to rest.

Again, the unexpected– an hour later, we were still stuck in DC. Apparently, rush hour traffic in DC is no joke. We gave up, recognizing we weren’t going to make it back to the hotel. We stopped and got dinner instead. During dinner, I called to make an appointment with my perinatologist back at home, just to make sure everything was okay with the little guy inside. After dinner, we walked over to the CNN studio nearby. “So what’s Piers Morgan like?” I asked our ADA friend. “Is he the kind of anchor who will be mean to me?” I was assured he was more mild than that.

Karmel in CNN Studio

Once in the studio, I was moved into makeup with relatively little explanation about how this was all going to happen. The makeup artist carried on with some disinterested patter while applying more makeup than I had ever worn in my life, cumulatively. Have I ever even worn mascara before? I wondered. Maybe when I was a kid, at some girly sleepover.

“So why are you on the show tonight?”

“I fainted while standing behind the President!”

“Oh. What do you do?”

“I’m getting my PhD in Bioinformatics.”

“Oh. That’s great.” Pause. More lipstick. “So you’re here because you work for the government?”

“Uh, no.”

“Okay, you’re done.”

My escort had disappeared so I wandered outside the makeup room for a moment before hearing my husband. I found the waiting room, and tried to drink some tea and not get tired while not ruining my mask of makeup. I was pointed in the general direction of the bathroom, and wandered through the back halls of the CNN studio, empty so late at night, with large televisions permanently cycling the current stream. The cleanup crew was laughing and running in the halls.

Back in the waiting room, I watched the live feed of Piers Morgan, presumably in New York, as it neared my time. He’s British, apparently. We joked about the fact that all I needed to do was not faint again on national television. I tried not to think about me on that screen. My blood sugar held steady, even after the walk over, and I was thankful.

“This is the first time you’ve been on TV?” someone from CNN asked.

“Yup,” I said.

“Perfect,” she replied. Is that better? Am I more likely to botch this and make for good entertainment?

I was moved into an adjacent room, small and painted black. The key is to stare straight at the camera, and not to shift in your chair, I had been told. One chair, one big camera. Giant lights behind the camera. The chair swiveled too readily; that makes it harder not to shift, I thought! The CNN staffer set me up with an earpiece, and tried to wire the microphone through the sleeve of my dress. She fumbled around with it a bit. Her cell phone rang; the microphone just has to go around the back, the voice said, not through her sleeve. “Oh– they’re watching us?” I asked, though as soon as I said it I realized of course they are. Once I was wired up, I waited. The screen below the camera played the show. “That will be turned off when I’m talking, right?” I didn’t want to be looking down at Piers Morgan’s face instead of the camera, and I certainly didn’t want to see myself talking. It would be turned off as soon as I was on.

The staffer left the room, and I was in the dark, waiting. I could hear the show through the earpiece. Children dead in a Sparks school shooting. We know people from Sparks. Tragic — I have to follow this? Then a White House representative talking about the Healthcare.gov website, and where the blame lies. A voice told me it would be just after the commercial break. Silence during the commercial break. And then back on, with the intro video showing the clip of me fainting. That was the first time I had seen it, and I laughed out loud, alone in my fishbowl room. Wow, that’s embarrassing. Then I forced it out of mind– it didn’t happen, and no one saw it. And no one is watching this; it’s just a phone call with some guy. No big deal.

And I was on. I stared at the camera, tried to smile. Bright lights. I don’t remember what he asked, and I can’t bring myself to watch the segment yet. I just recall him asking something, and me launching into why I was on stage in the first place. Close enough, I figured. He kept asking about the fainting, so I kept trying to answer about healthcare. And then as soon as it started, it was over. A single instant in time.

I wasn’t told I was done, but after the show continued on for a few seconds, I figured it was safe to assume I was not on the air. I was detached from my cabling, and I exited back into the waiting room. “So how was it?”

My husband and the representatives form the ADA assured me it was great. I didn’t know whether to believe them, but I admit it was exhilarating to have survived. I get to be done now, right?

“They asked if you wanted to do the morning show tomorrow.” One more time: YOLO.

Sure, why not. I’ve already gotten this far, right? But I’ll need something to wear– all I have is this dress and the t-shirt I brought for the plane ride.

On the way back to the hotel, we stop at a CVS to pick up makeup remover. It takes me half of a package of face-wipes to get all that makeup off my face.

The emails and phone calls keep rolling in. My husband triages for me; I fall asleep.

The next morning, a car from CNN picks us up at 8:00 for an 8:45 AM arrival at the station. By 8:35, the driver is getting frantic calls; they’re supposed to be here already! We say we were told 8:45, and I assumed that like the previous night that was an hour before air time. When we arrived at 8:45 at the station, however, the CNN staffer was literally running, telling me I was on in two minutes, and there was no time. I grabbed one of the shirts the ADA representative had brought for me to try, and put it on in the bathroom. I tried to calm myself. If they botched the start time, that’s okay; this must happen all the time. Don’t get nervous, and don’t panic. Just play it cool. No one watches morning shows anyways.

I was rushed into the studio room, and miked and makeupped simultaneously. No time, no time! And you’re on! I have not seen this segment either, and have never watched the show, so I’m still not sure whom I was talking to. Not knowing makes it easier to respond as if it doesn’t matter. They played some clips about people fainting in other speeches by the President, asked some fluffy questions. Done in twenty seconds, and I was led out of the studio, to the car to the airport.

Home

A relief. On the way to the car, a woman stops me– are you the woman who fainted? At the airport, strangers strike up conversations– are you the one who fainted? Emails and calls still. Facebook friend requests from strangers. I’m exhausted. We make the mistake of watching Prometheus on the plane. Not the film to show to a pregnant woman who is concerned about the health of her baby at that point in time. My husband ensures that I don’t watch the parts that involve gestated aliens and robot cesareans.

Back in San Diego, and no one cares who I am. Happy is the city that doesn’t watch as much news as in DC! I love you, San Diego. Back home, still culling emails and phone calls. Avoiding phone calls now; I’m done. Yesterday’s news.

The next morning I somehow ended up in tears before leaving for work. The little guy hadn’t moved much in the anatomy ultrasound a few weeks prior, or in the ultrasound I had the previous week, and I still couldn’t really feel him kicking. Maybe I could, but it seemed like just my stomach. What if something is wrong? What if fainting hurt him? I was tired, and overwhelmed by the last few days, and horrible images of the little guy floating around, limp inside of me drove me over to tears. My husband comforted me, and assured me everything was fine. He understood my worry, but I was being ridiculous. I knew it too.

Back to work. People from neighboring labs greeted me with, “I saw you on TV!” and a few comments about how much my blog post had meant to them. That moved me. In my lab, I explained the story a few times, and we all laughed, and then got back to work. Oh, academia, where the minutia of obscure cellular functions is infinitely more interesting than the President! How at home I felt.

My 72 hour CFSE stain had turned into a 108 hour stain, and I hoped all would still be well. I spent the morning too busy to worry, analyzing the cells. And, hey, it worked! Not perfect, but well enough, certainly!

After noon, I left for my doctor’s appointment. The perinatologist asked for all the details of my fainting, and agreed the most likely cause was just lack of blood flow. She hadn’t heard about the fainting, and was surprised to hear this fainting took place at the White House, behind the President. An ultrasound to check on the little guy. I held my breath. But there he was, happy as a clam. Spinning and galumphing. I explained I had been worried, because I still couldn’t really feel him. The nurse expressed disbelief; surely I could feel that movement! I tried to feel and watch simultaneously, and then it clicked. The visual confirmation plus the feeling, and I realized, oh, yeah, I have been feeling that! And I can definitely feel that! An amazing moment. A tiny secret, held inside of me.

And then from there on out, I could feel him all the time — rolling and bucking and galumphing about. Amazing. Even now, I am sitting here, pausing to feel. Incredible. I am thrilled to be back to real life, and that this is the wonderful realness that life is.

The Aftermath

Now, for the most part, the emails and comments and messages I received were supportive and positive — from diabetics expressing camaraderie, despite their feelings on the healthcare act, and from friends expressing how much my writing meant to them. A few comments saying my hair was cool — I’ll take that! Still, even early on, there were people suggesting I faked the faint, that I was an Obama plant, and so on.

A number of friends and family have expressed great concern and surprise at the negativity, and have arisen in my defense. I appreciate that. But, for my part– I find the “faint gate” conspiracy theories hilarious. Absolutely entertaining. There is certainly no shortage of crazy on the internet, and where would we be without it? Can you imagine the internet without all these people? A boring place indeed!

Not to mention, there must be some metric of press freedom we can derive from all the Obama-bashing on the internet; number of real government critiques plus number of batshit crazy critiques over total amount of new content on the internet equals the “Anti-government speech tolerance score” of a country. The AnGST score!

Some of my favorites? The disbelief that the President turned around — how did he know? Never mind that he has an earpiece and that the Secret Service and entire White House staff is watching for any suspicious behavior. That my husband is a multi-millionaire Silicon Valley tech exec. Honey, where are all our millions? Have you been hiding a Silicon Valley palace from me? That I’m not really a diabetic — I only wish! Maybe in the future.

The internet is such wonderful fun. The irony, of course, is that mainstream media has totally forgotten I ever existed, yet I live on in the hearts of the internet crazies! Over and Out And that’s all, folks. Life is now happily back to regularly scheduled programming, which includes lots of work and feeling for baby. It was fun while it lasted, but I’m glad it passed, with me still in one piece. And when all is said and done, it was an honor to be part of such an important part of our country’s history, as we move forward with this legislation that is so crucial for people like me.

A million “Thank you”s to my husband, our friends at the ADA, the staff at the White House, my friends here at ASweetLife.org, everyone who expressed support and love for me during this whole time, and everyone who is still my friend even after my fifteen minutes are over. See you all around!

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Comments (34)

  1. Michelle Gonzale at

    I’m so glad you and baby are okay. Thanks for the long account! It was fascinating. What an experience!

  2. Jessica at

    I am so glad that you and baby are okay!  I first heard about your fainting on another T1 blog and felt compelled to set some people straight in the comment section of more than one news article.  You are handling this all exceptionally well and I admire you for being brave and sharing your story with the internet.  

  3. Bravo. 
    You have lived one of my dreams, to meet the President.   When I read all the negative crap, “plant” “fake” , etc.  I was offended for you.  I am also a T1 Diabetic, with two kids, also with low BP. I raised my hand here in my little office and yelled “Me too!  Stop with all the negative stuff!!”.  Thanks for the follow-up, good stuff. 

  4. David Squires at

    Thank you for both articles.

  5. Carly at

    As a fellow diabetic in SoCal in a PhD program, it is good to know I am not alone! Thanks for doing what you do, and glad to hear the baby is safe! Won’t this be a story for you kid when they grow up!

  6. Jeff N. at

    Very happy that you and your baby are okay. Never mind the internet crazies–it never ceases to amaze me how quickly the comments on so many online stories become negative for no good reason. Thanks so much for representing the T1D community so well. 

  7. Megan V at

    Of course I read the whole thing!  You are amazing and awesome. Thank you for such a thorough recap of your experiences.

  8. Bryan T at

    Karmel,

    I am glad you, the little one, and David are all doing alright, and that you are able to find humor in the craziness of the Internet. It is great that you had the opportunity to fly out there, and even greater that you got to shine a light on some of the positive effects of the PPACA.

    Take care and much love! 

  9. kate at

    Karmel,

    Have you ever been tested for Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome? Watching you faint was like seeing myself, and reading about your medical history made me wonder. Might be worth looking into and could prevent such celebrity encounters in the future.   :>

    Wishing you the very best,
    Kate 

  10. Dave Tag at

    I want to believe this woman and her actions… than someone posts this and I wonder?  Is this staged…?  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eupEkeYOhj4#t=166

  11. katy at

    Thank you for sharing your story! I love that comic sans had some small role in the excitement.

  12. Isabel Martinez at

    Glad you & the baby are ok.  This is the best YOLO ever!

  13. Cyn D. at

    I read the whole thing, too, and loved it!  So glad you and your little one are doing well.  Thanks for the detailed account.  It was fascinating!  I love your “voice” when you write  :-)

  14. Chris Korb at

    I am very happy you and your baby are ok, I am also happy that Sarah Pallins remarks regarding this episode have made her look like the idiot she is.

  15. Wonderful story, enjoyed reading it – never mind the crazy people who reside and have nothing better to do online than knock others.

  16. j-live fan at

    I’m glad you shared your numbers with us. Thanks a lot.

    Is it fair to say that your blood sugar level played no role in your fainting, since it was at 140 mg/dL at 5 to 30 minutes (say) after your faint? (Or, do you think you could have Smoygied at that point, i.e., released glycogen from your liver in response to a severe low at the time of the faint?)

    Also glad you’re amused at the conspiratorial metanarrative on this, because the people demand more of your insights :). Seriously, to me the play-out of conspiracy talk in real time over a minor incident like this is a rich and valuable learning tool, even as much as my personal interest as a T1D in a widely publicized diabetes event (which as it turns out wasn’t the proverbial “low blood sugar” after all!). You highlight secondary and speculative aspects; inferences such as that you are not really diabetic, e.g. But what do you think of the meat of the conspiracy narrative: the allegedly “strange” behavior of the still-unnamed woman to the right of you? Specifically, what do you think accounts for her smile, her attempts to suppress the smile, her mouthed communications, and her averted gaze during the medical crisis? What is her relationship to you, if any? Now that you have seen the video, can you see what others such as myself saw in this “odd” behavior, or does it strike you simply as nothing more than a will-o-the-wisp, or what?

    In your wider cropped (?) video, what earlier appeared to be an “elbow nudge” from this lady is definitely visible as her reaching to hold your waist, so that’s enough of the “elbow nudge” thing. Moreover, I hadn’t duly considered the earpiece thing you mention. How bizarre, but that could conceivably explain even what appear to be the most obvious and egregious “fakes” (such as the now-classic fainting episode with Hillary Clinton in one of the primary debates, where we hear a vague murmur or shout in a vast crowd and Hillary quickly turns her whole body around 180 degrees to say “did someone just faint” and start directing water, police, etc., right from the stage). What super verbal flexibility must be required for these earpiece-endowed politicians to read scripts, debate, make jokes, etc., and simultaneously process and act on security chatter: makes me a bit queasy even to think about!

  17. Catherine at

    Karmel, you are amazing. I first heard about your adventure b/c I’d been meaning to watch you during the live broadcast, then saw a link on Slate to “woman faints behind president” and clicked on it thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll get to see Karmel in the background!”So glad you and the baby are okay, and very impressed by your grace and humor.

  18. Jim at

    Great Story. Glad you, baby and David are well.  I’m glad you got to experience DC. Definitely a fast moving, highly political place.  I too heard the “Obama Plant” conspiracy theories and thought, Wow, how low can people go. But then again, Politics, is made up of conspiracy theories.
     

  19. Wendy at

    Karmel, I am happy that life has gotten back to normal for you, and baby is fine. I hate that the crazies even exist, but you seem to understand, we need them just to have something to laugh at everyday. Take care of yourself, we need more people like you, especially because of what you do. I have a friend in Kansas who is also a scientist, and is working on auditory mapping of the brain. You folks are extremely important to the rest of us. Just keep up the good work.

  20. Pamela at

    A well written and entertaining piece on your whole ordeal.  You’re certainly quite the writer to take the mundane and make it exciting.  I’m certainly glad you’re okay for yourself and baby and your story certainly refutes all these staged claims.  Alas, many of the wantingly beguiled public will never believe your story.

  21. Erica at

    Hi Karmel!  Amazing story! Thank you for taking the time to write about this experience and share with the world. You are a wonderful writer and I throughly enjoyed hearing the details, which we all can relate to! This is one of those wacky experiences in life that makes for great storytelling, and I hope you will always look back on this story with a humor angle. Much success to you in your research work and blessings to you and your family in the future. 

  22. Bobbie at

    Enjoyed your detailed experience and so happy you got to be there and meet the President.  I know you were so scared about the baby and America is thrilled he is okay.  You handled all this with aplomb and are to be commended.  Good luck with your work and your family.  We’re all proud of you,

  23. valerie.heffron at

    I watched your whole process on live TV, I figured that maybe it was morning sickness, NEVER occurred to me it was BG levels. I complain all the time about my low BG’s, maybe not so much now.
    Bless you, 

  24. Dube at

    Karmel, can you tell us what type of insulin pump you have? and if it wasnt a pump on the back of your left arm, what was it? thanks!

  25. Christopher Lovetere at

    Karmel,
    You did have a low sugar reaction.  The mistake you made was the last bolus of 1/2 unit.  You worried about a high, another mistake.  Highs are bad in the long term, not in the short term. They can be beneficial during events, when remaining functional is the priority.  Driving is a good example.  Test before a big event and remain below renal threshold of 180.  The reason your sugar tested 140 after, was because the low carb snack bar finally broke down and turned into usable sugar.  Keep glucose tabs with you at all times!  They are the key to not having to depend on others to save you.  I am a pump user and a professional magician.  I have to get through 45 minute performances.  I test before each show.  I shoot for between 120 and 180 and keep a bottle of OJ in my magic trunk to swig, should I feel woozy during the show.  In between events, I target 80 to 120.  Embrace your diabetes and be your own doctor.  Stop trying to be “normal”, you’re not.  Normal A1C’s are healthy goals, but staying conscious is more important for staying healthy and alive.

  26. j-live fan at

    Christopher Lovetere: You are not correct to assert definitively that she had a low sugar reaction. I think she’s describing correctly what happened. But I admit that it’s possible. Karmel, sorry that you’re being objectified by all this discussion of your condition, by me as well as others; I just want to reiterate that I really appreciate your willingness to put your intimate medical details out there for educational purposes. Gifts of good karma are on their way to you no doubt.

    Agree with CL that people have different levels for feeling normal at any given moment, and equally important, for having a level of certainty that a normal feeling will last for the duration of an event before one can recuperate. Like you say, this includes readings that would be classified as high for a normal individual.   

    Also agree that the low-carb snack bar (LCSB) may have played a role of some sort. Karmel, could you please clarify what you meant when you said “I start to head down, and had a LCSB”? “I started to proceed down the hall, and ate a LCSB while I walked”? Or, more likely, “My blood sugar started to dip, and so I tried the conservative correction of a LCSB”?   Also, Karmel, what is the rationale for having a LCSB and 8 grams of corrective carbs at the same time? Or put another way, might you just as well have eaten half a sandwich if available, for the same mix of low-carb (meat) and high-carb (bread)? Or is there something I’m missing? And I’d guess 8 grams is about half an Oreo cookie, is that right? 

  27. David Allison at

    j-live fan – Thanks for your note re: Christopher Lovetere. I would also like to note that I am quite certain Karmel’s account is accurate. She was wearing a continuous glucose monitor the entire time (as she’s written before) and both the physicians and White House EMTs that aided her did not believe the incident to be blood sugar related.

  28. j-live fan at

    Thanks for the response, David, you famous guy! With the CGM, why was there mystery at all, during real time, about what the BG was? What actual use are these things, as opposed to say finger-pricking however many times a day and keeping good records?

    Not to be unnecessarily skepitical, but I saw how they de-marketed the non-electronic colorimetric system, and these are literally prohibited since the FDA approval has lapsed. In my opinion, the electronic systems add hassle and they don’t improve things. Not only that, if your electronic devise breaks or gets soaked, woops, maybe no reading for you. I’m outdoorsy and I do resent that the FDA has prohibited me from purchasing a long-approved product that is really more robust (fewer pieces to keep track of, cheaper cause you can split strips, the watertight bottle lets you keep the whole works—insulin, syringes, lancets, checking system, swabs—in a single bag if you care to use the cooling capacity of ice, water, or even dirt burial in the summer if a refrigerator isn’t around; even refrigerating the e-monitor causes it to shut down until it warms up, or in a cold house in the winter you can’t get a reading until you stick it under your armpit for a few minutes). I’m not trying to derail here but I perceive, even in the regular e-monitors, a loss of sight of the goal. They are touted as more accurate, but I don’t see how it does me any good to know that my BS is 110 versus 120, or 65 versus 55, or 294 versus 314. All I really need to know is very low, low, normal, high, or very high; quite sufficient to deduce trends and keep safe. (Moreover, I’ve tested the electronic number consistency under real conditions and gotten 10 or 15 point variances from two different fingers at the exact same time, so even IF single-mg/dL accuracy WERE important, the normal equipment you can get just doesn’t provide it in the course of things.)

    Also, I want more on the conspiracy perception thing. David, would you please comment on what to many (including myself) appeared to be “conspiratorial” (from Latin, “to breathe together”) facial and somatic gestures of the woman that was holding your wife’s hand and waist: the strange grin, the apparent lack of normal concern for or focus on someone fainting next to her, the mouthed words to someone in the audience? And do you have an opinion on why President Obama turned around to your wife? From the anti-conspiracy side, I’ve heard variously, security talk on earpiece, pointing from the audience, and murmur of unexpected activity behind him.  

    I’ve got to learn to stop rambling so much but my goodness this is such an interesting story.  

  29. j-live fan at

    The most important thing about my long message above is the radical questioning of the necessity or benefit of electronic monitoring for blood glucose. My reasons include 1) the vulnerability of electronics primarily to breakage, moisture, and cold, secondarily to battery failure, bulk, and misplacement/loss; and 2) the lack of any experienced advantage in having a precise (or, really, PSEUDO-precise) number as opposed to a color chart comparison. This is AMPLIFIED by my lack of freedom to choose whatever system works best (which beautifully accords in a general way to the idea of government involvement in health care in general; my actual decades-long experience is that the FDA ban on colorimetric strips is very detrimental, forcing choices I wouldn’t make on my own, and yet Obamacare wants to give this same government—the IRS, no less—-more control over my personal process in keeping myself alive and healthy, see?)

    I would love for someone to point out the flaws in my radical critique.   

  30. j-live fan at

    EDIT: “…primarily to breakage and moisture and secondarily to battery failure, bulk, misplacement/loss, and cold….”

  31. helen at

    I read every word! What an experience. You should start writing professionally. You have a gift of writing. You wrote an article that was informative, very entertaining, and non political. Well done!  Blessings on you, your husband and baby.

  32. j-live fan at

    Wow, this fascinating event seems to have dropped off the map. Let it be said that Karmel’s experience as recorded in this article is a failure of the very concept of “continuous glucose monitoring.” This term seems to be misleading happy-talk, probably designed to push unnecessary products for someone’s taxpayer-subsidized personal profit. Someone, please show me how I’m wrong: what exactly is “continuous” about the BG monitoring described in the article? Thanks!

  33. Hi Karmel,

    I wrote one of the articles slamming the conspiracy theorists a couple of weeks ago. You hadn’t yet written this article but I’d had my fingers crossed that you would speak up about it for yourself, and I’m very, very glad you did! Conspiracy theorists are hilarious (though kind of tragic in their own way) and I was really amused by how many people were talking about you as if you weren’t actually a human being. I saw one person say that you were a “one of Obama’s many transgender o-bots” and that you were actually a professional actress who specializes in fake-fainting. What the heck? Considering that 99% of these people probably think that President Obama was born in Kenya, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

    I’m glad you’re feeling better and that you and your little bean are safe! I’m sorry that you were embarrassed and that people made such bizarre and insulting accusations about the incident.

    From one fainting-prone pregnant woman to another,

    Juniper Russo

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