A Field Guide to People With Diabetes: 7 Things to Look For


It was a hot, boring Sunday afternoon, and my husband and I were driving home, stopped at a crosswalk to let a family pass. The woman was in a sleeveless shirt and pushing a stroller; as soon as I saw her, I sat up straight. As quickly as I could, I rolled down the window and hung as much as my upper body out of the vehicle as possible. “DEXCOOOOOM!” I bellowed. “Whooooooooo-hooooo!” I couldn’t help it. When you live with diabetes for a given amount of time, your mind is always on the lookout for those secret clues – the signals from other people that remind you you’re not alone in the world. Even when you don’t realize it. As continuous glucose monitors become more common – and more visible – they’re easier to spot. But there are other, more subtle ways to spot the diabetes brothers and sisters in our midst.

Runaway test strips. Anyone who has tried to contain a used test strip collection – especially in a purse – knows the challenge of keeping them discreet. And that’s why it’s easy to recognize the stray-test-strip issue in other people, even strangers. I’ve spotted test strips stuck to shirtsleeves, wallets, or falling softly from pockets and handfuls of change. Not to mention the familiar rattle of the test strip vial, which I can recognize from at least a football field away.

Beeps and boops. Even in an age of ringtones, alerts and ever-present technological noise pollution, there’s something about the “beep” of an insulin pump completing a bolus, or the shriek of an angry CGM that cuts through all the other stuff. It’s almost like our devices are calling out to each other on their own volition.

Tubage. I’ve spotted those transparent tangles of pump tubing from the pockets of more people than I comfortable admitting to, especially since most of them were dudes. Most recently, I ID’d the guy who bags my groceries as a pump-wearer. It turns out he’s in his 60s and was diagnosed at 10 months old. His advice? “Don’t worry about your eyes. They can zap away whatever happens.” Okay, sure!

Extra lumps. At this point, any upper-arm lump or rectangular third-boob gets an automatic double-take from me. Thankfully, they’re usually diabetes related. (I’ve never actually approached a potential diabetes friend about a suspected pump-in-the-bra situation. One day, however, it will happen.)

Pharmacy experts. There may be no easier place to identify a person – or a relative of a person – with diabetes. PWDs are in and out, and are known to throw around phrases like, “It’s probably in the fridge.” Generally speaking, this person does not have questions for the pharmacist about how to use test strips or insulin or glucagon, and may be seen purchasing gummy bears and back-up syringes at the same time.

ID Jewelry. Duh, right? But lots of people with diabetes go to lengths to keep their diabetes jewelry on the down-low, either by tucking necklaces under shirts or by wearing bracelets that do not fit the utilitarian stainless steel mold. But every once in a while you can spot that happy little snake-and-staff peeking out from a sleeve, and sometimes you can strike up a conversation with that person by flashing your own fancy alert jewelry. That’s the real reason you wear it, right?

Random informants. I don’t think it’s intentional, but I have a superhuman-like ability to detect the words “insulin,” “A1c,” “blood sugar,” and “alcohol swab” spoken in a conversation across a crowded room – especially restaurants. I’ve jumped into strangers’ diabetes-related conversations, and I’ve also eavesdropped like a complete weirdo, building a stranger’s entire health history in my mind based on an overheard story about a low blood sugar.

A fabulous sense of humor and/or marked enthusiasm for connecting with other PWDs. People with diabetes can’t help but try to connect with each other, and many (according to my highly scientific studies) share the same bizarre sense of wit. Call them side effects of life with diabetes – or any chronic disease – empathy and humor are among the first to appear.

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