I was prepared for everything that could happen in class that day, except, that is, a hypoglycemic episode.
As a writing teacher, a lot of my work is interpersonal and hands on: I meet with students, review their work, discuss options for structure and language, workshop their drafts, and teach from published models. Occasionally, though, I stand up in front of a group of 20, 40, or even 80 students and lecture on some aspect of scientific communications. To do that, I have to bring a lot of gear to the classroom: laptop, power cord, VGA adapter, wireless presenter, handouts, and USB drive, just in case. As I pack my Timbuktu bag before a big lecture, I go through a mental checklist so that I don’t forget anything I need for teaching from slides.
On this one day, however, I forgot to go through another important checklist: the one of everything I need for caring for my diabetes. I saw my glucose meter kit swimming around in the depths of my bag, and that was enough assurance for my diabetic peace of mind.
The classroom, in an old building on campus, was overheated when my colleagues and I (we often team-teach) arrived. I took off my extra layer (this is deep winter in the snowy Northeast) and began to greet the engineering students and introduce their upcoming writing task. I had rehearsed and I wasn’t nervous, so I chalked up my feelings of agitation and dampness to the warm room and adrenalin.
I always build in activities into my lectures. At the first pause, as the students were working in groups to analyze a model text’s features, I went over to my bag, took out my glucose meter, and discreetly checked my blood sugar: 60. Ah, sweatiness explained. I reached to the bottom of my bag, where one or two 6 oz. juice boxes typically reside. I checked the zippered pockets for an old roll of glucose tablets. My hands came out empty.
Sixty. For me, that number signals low and going lower. I can function on 60, but less well on 50. And it doesn’t take long for 50 to go south, especially if I don’t introduce any quick-acting carbohydrate into the equation of insulin and metabolism.
My mind quickly reviewed options. I tried to picture where in the building I had seen vending machines and realized there were none. I could make a scene, and tell my colleagues, both of whom do not even know I have Type 1 diabetes, that I had to leave suddenly and ask them to improvise for the rest of the hour. I could take a risk and proceed as planned, and secretly hope that my blood sugar would hover at 60 until the end of the class period, when I could walk to a nearby cafe and get some juice or fruit. Oh, what I wouldn’t have given in that moment for a glass of orange juice to appear and save me!
I felt cornered by a set of circumstances that I believed were my own creation: not having told these colleagues about my diabetes, not having packed enough supplies, and not having controlled my blood sugar well enough that day so that my numbers would be more “normal.” Under pressure of the ticking clock — I had only a few minutes until the students would be done with the activity — I was also under pressure to resolve the dilemma on my own.
What did I do? I came up with a solution more wily than prudent. I turned off my insulin pump, hoped my blood sugar would stay at 60, and taught through the rest of the class. Then I packed up my gear, said “See you later” to my colleagues, and turned left in the direction of the nearest cafe, where I fed my hunger and restarted my insulin.
I hope I have learned a lesson. Later I told my colleagues about my diabetes and what was happening to me during lecture while they were unaware. And I have added an item to my checklist, for when I leave the house in the morning and when I prepare for class: juice box, juice box, juice box.