Before my husband, Mike, was diagnosed with diabetes, he was – to my mind – a certified tough guy. He’d been a paratrooper, had a black belt in some kind of kickboxing/karate thing that I (clearly) know nothing about, and he ran long distances. Whenever I was with him, I felt safe and protected, kind of like having a husband and a Rottweiler all rolled into one. (The previous sentence is intended as a compliment.) And if you’d asked me to come up with a thousand adjectives to describe Mike, “weak” would not have made the list.
But then one day he got sick. We’d been in Atlanta with our baby for Mike’s cousin’s wedding, and had to cancel our flight home because Mike said he was too sick to fly. I had never heard Mike say there was something he couldn’t do. In fact, just a year earlier we’d been in Paris together and the night before our flight home, Mike got food poisoning from a dish of raw sea slugs. (There must be a sexy way to say sea slugs in French.) We had just a few hours between the dinner and our flight home, and Mike felt stomach cramps so severe, he was doubled over in pain. I suggested we stay an extra night in Paris until he felt better. He would hear nothing of it. When it was time to go, he pulled himself together, carried all the luggage, and off we went. He was not about to have his butt kicked by slimy sea slugs, and though he felt utterly horrid on the inside, you couldn’t tell on the outside.
So when Mike said he was too sick to fly home after his cousin’s wedding, you can probably imagine how shocking his statement was, especially since no one could see his sickness. He didn’t have a fever and though he did look pale, he seemed mostly okay, except for the hours he spent in bed curled up like a little pillbug.
We got home a few days later, and everything went back to normal. Mike was just really thirsty. Normal, but thirsty. But, you know, we lived in a hot climate and he ran a lot outside. It was definitely normal for him to be thirsty. Then he got even thirstier and wanted to drink things other than water – things that we rarely had in the house, like a gallon of orange juice (every day). And he wanted to have milkshakes for dinner. It was noticeably odd, but Mike was still running long distances. He had a great appetite. No signs of anything scary. That’s why we didn’t worry when he started to lose weight.
Months passed and slowly but surely Mike’s fluid intake increased as his weight decreased. But he still had a marvellous appetite and exercised like a champ. He peed like a champ, too. If you’re drinking a lot, though, you’re going to pee a lot. You don’t need to be a doctor to figure that much out. There was no reason for us to be alarmed. And Mike was out the door every morning at 6:30 to go to work. Sure, he felt tired, but so would anyone who worked a long, full day and was up half the night drinking and peeing and the other half because our baby was crying. Neither of us could ever catch up on sleep. We walked around like zombies, just trying to get through the day.
After about six months, Mike couldn’t feel his toes. He’d been out in the cold in wet boots, so there was a reasonable explanation, but still he was worried enough to talk to the doctor. Mike neglected to mention to the doctor that he was also drinking five gallons of liquid a day and peeing waterfalls. And the doctor didn’t think much of his numb toes. So Mike went on as usual, he kept drinking, eating, and losing weight. But he wasn’t running anymore. He could barely get out of bed. And his vision was blurry.
When we found out Mike had Type 1 diabetes, he was pretty close to dead. If we’d known even one thing about Type 1 diabetes, we might have had a clue. Mike could have gotten a blood test two weeks into his symptoms and he would have gotten insulin and been fine. He didn’t have to be within days, hours, minutes of falling into a coma.
When we talk about the importance of diabetes education, we’re generally referring to education for the people already living with it. I’d like diabetes education to include “real” awareness – not a campaign or public service announcement that no one who doesn’t have diabetes is going to notice, not just a campaign whose aim is to make life better for those already living with diabetes.
What if the symptoms of Type 1 were common knowledge? What if every school teacher in the country received information about Type 1 diabetes? In my middle school health class we learned about CPR and the Heimlich maneuvre. We learned not to eat fat or have sex before marriage, but we didn’t learn anything about diabetes. When my oldest son was born I received information about the vaccinations he would need, and all sorts of other stuff designed to
educate overwhelm and terrify new parents. Nowhere did I read that if your child is extremely thirsty you should be concerned about Type 1 diabetes. But maybe if I had, something would have clicked when Mike was thirsty.
Mike’s terrifying diagnosis story is not unique. I’ve heard versions of it over and over again in both adults and children. Type 1 diabetes may not be preventable, but getting really sick because its undiagnosed definitely is. And along with the education of diabetes symptoms should come another very important message: Just because you have diabetes doesn’t mean you’re not a tough guy anymore. Mike and all of his post-diabetes accomplishments are proof that diabetes makes you stronger.