Recently, a story blew up about a handwritten sign in a restaurant in Watertown, New York. That sign, placed by the owner of the little mom-and-pop eatery, said, “Attention: If you are a diabetic and have to give yourself an injection, please do so in the restroom. Thank you!” After some very negative press, the owner pulled it down. He’d put it up, he told the local news, because “some customers complained about someone using insulin at one of the tables.”
I have a child with type 1 diabetes. That means on many occasions I’ve helped my kid use insulin at a table in a restaurant. Taking him to a bathroom to give him an injection would send a message to him and the rest of the world that he should be ashamed of having type 1 diabetes, that he’s doing something dirty or illicit. So, like many other people in the diabetes community and beyond, I found the sign offensive and discriminatory. The restaurant owner came to realize the same thing. He told a reporter that “putting up the sign was a mistake.” He said, “I’m really sorry if it offended anyone. I had no clue about it.”
Lots of people don’t. Unless they’ve been touched by diabetes in some way—a family member or friend or acquaintance—type 1 diabetes is a disease that’s comfortably off the radar. They don’t know the triumph of a night with steady blood sugars. Or the panic that comes with accidentally sleeping through an alarm. Or the compulsion to high-five a stranger wearing a Dexcom CGM on the arm or sporting a Nightscout T-shirt or exposing a bit of pump tubing.
Before my son’s diagnosis, I didn’t know anything about type 1 diabetes
Until my son’s diagnosis I didn’t get it.
I recall bits of a conversation at a long-ago cocktail party with a woman (now a dear friend) who said she sometimes had to give her baby a “sugar baba” when her child “went low.” Back then I had no idea what she was talking about. I might even have excused myself to refresh my drink.
My previous cluelessness has—um, sometimes—reminded me to patiently educate those who don’t get it. It’s too easy to get hurt and angry.
A couple of years ago when I first met with an administrator at my son’s public school to discuss his 504 plan, the topic fell on where the nurse would check his blood sugar throughout the day. The options included the nurse’s office, the bathroom or a designated spot just outside the door of the classroom. All of these places pulled my son from his education. All of these places signaled something was wrong with him, that he was different. Couldn’t his finger sticks happen in the classroom where he was sitting, I asked? But there was concern that the other students might be exposed to “pathogens from his blood.”
The next meeting I presented literature that supported the fact that with proper procedure, a finger-stick didn’t affect surrounding people. In some cases an uncovered cough or sneeze might be more dangerous. And I did some math: four trips to the nurse’s office per day equal about 80 minutes out of the classroom. Multiply that by 180 days of school a year. Then multiply that by 13 years of school—kindergarten through grade 12—and you get 187,200 hours, the equivalent of about 98 days spent walking to and from the nurse’s office. Imagine all the learning missed during those back and forths.
Now, several years in, we have a system that works well. And that administrator is a compassionate member of my son’s school care team.
As with diabetes and, well, just about everything else, it’s easy to fear what we don’t know.
That sign in the Watertown restaurant brought me back to the earliest days with my son in our new life with diabetes. We’d stopped at a burger place on the way home from a medical appointment. As we sat in a booth, an already dog-eared copy of The CalorieKing Calorie Fat & Carbohydrate Counter bulging in my purse, a crisp new camouflage-printed canvas diabetes kit on the table in front of me, I noticed an elderly couple sitting side-by-side in the next booth. Just before their food arrived I saw the woman inject the man in the arm with an insulin pen. It was subtle and systematic, done with the same ease in which you’d sign your name.
What would I have thought before I knew about diabetes? Would I have wished they’d gone to a bathroom? Would the act of this woman medicating this man so offended me that I’d have lost my appetite and complained to the owner?
I guess I’ll never know. What I do remember is feeling infinitely comforted that we weren’t alone.