In an outdated and dimly lit clinic on Beverly Avenue in Los Angeles, a medical assistant tested my vitals and told me to pee in a cup. I was a busy architectural intern and had no time for this. I had an end of the day deadline at work, but I’d left my office and come to the urgent care clinic because I couldn’t take the burning pain in my bladder. I intended to get antibiotics for what I suspected was a urinary tract infection and go straight back to work. I waited impatiently for the doctor to come in and write a prescription so I could go on my merry way back to the office. I was thinking about my impending deadline and questioning why I had chosen to propose custom presentation boards for my bosses’ meeting in New York. I had about thirty more to print, mount on chipboard and then individually cut and sand by hand.
Eventually the doctor came into the exam room. He turned to shut the door, and with his back to me he said, “You know that you have diabetes, right?”
“Excuse me?” I said. I was there to get antibiotics to treat a bladder infection. Why was he telling me I had diabetes? And what did diabetes even mean? I had known a girl named Nora in the sixth grade who had diabetes. She would check her blood sugar and give herself insulin shots at her locker in between classes.
“I happen to be an endocrinologist,” said the doctor. I thought to myself, What does an endocrinologist specialize in, again? He went on to explain that based on the symptoms I was having he had instructed the medical assistant to test my urine for sugar, as well as for the urinary tract infection.
The doctor, apparently, was under the impression I knew I had diabetes and was taking poor care of myself. And I was irritated by his assumption and nonchalant delivery of a life-changing diagnosis. I couldn’t process it, and I couldn’t stop my mind from racing. Would I have to give myself insulin injections like Nora? Nora had said that she could never have children, so did this mean that children were no longer an option for me? Would I eventually need dialysis like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias? Didn’t she have diabetes?
I was having all of these terrifying thoughts without even understanding what I’d just been diagnosed with. I needed explanations. I needed to digest the news, but before I could, guilt began to overwhelm me. What had I done to make this happen? Earlier in the afternoon as I was working in the model room, I’d been so tired that I decided I needed an afternoon sugar hit and I ate a 3 Musketeers bar. Was it the 3 Musketeers bar that had given me diabetes? Or maybe it was because a month earlier at a business dinner a woman at the table was talking about being diabetic and how she was going to eat potatoes and drink red wine and what she would have to do to compensate for that decision. I had thought, Why do we all need to know about you being diabetic? Don’t you realize this is inappropriate dinner conversation? I must have been given diabetes as a payback for having had that thought. Ironically, when I was having that thought, I was most probably an undiagnosed diabetic. I was ashamed and embarrassed.
The next hour was a blur. I had to move to a larger room in the clinic so that the interns could come in and observe as the doctor poked and prodded. Yes, I had diabetes, but I was also right about the urinary tract infection and I also had a yeast infection. I lay on the examination table with my feet in the stirrups, fully exposed, as interns milled about. All I could do was stare at the stained acoustical ceiling tile and think, lovely, just lovely.
The doctor gave me a shot of insulin and wrote some prescriptions. He told me I could go to the pharmacy, fill my prescriptions, and get a blood glucose monitor, but that I would have to come back to make sure the shot of insulin they had given me was working. My blood sugar had been 550 mg/dl and needed to come down to the normal range of 70-100. I got into my car to drive to the pharmacy and left my boyfriend a message in a shaky voice. “Call me,” was all I said.
In the pharmacy I received all of my diabetes supplies from a pharmacist with a frozen facial expression and monotone voice. This was L.A., I knew, a far cry from Meridian, Idaho where I grew up and the pharmacist was a family friend. But still I wondered about that pharmacist, if the thought even crossed her mind that often in her job she was a person’s first contact with the outside world after being diagnosed with an illness. I walked out of the pharmacy carrying a big brown bag full of supplies I had no idea how to use. As I walked to my car I noticed people coming and going from the drugstore in the busy La Cienega Boulevard parking lot. I couldn’t connect to the ease of their movements. They seemed so normal. For me, the sense of isolation grew with each step and I retreated deeper into my ocean of thoughts, fears, and questions.
I returned to the clinic where the doctor confirmed that my blood sugar was on its way down. I was allowed to go home and rest for the evening with strict instructions to follow up with a primary care doctor in the morning. I sat in my car for a few minutes in the parking structure, replaying the events of the previous three hours, trying to make some sort of sense out of it all before returning to the office when my phone rang. It was my boyfriend and I was happy to hear the voice of someone I knew, and to know that I was not going to be alone with this news any longer. His voice sounded nervous as he asked how my appointment had gone. I told him that I’d been diagnosed with diabetes. He exhaled loudly, laughed and said, “It’s just diabetes. Thank God. I thought you were pregnant.”
I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard of the bombshell of diabetes being dropped so matter-of-factly by asinine doctors! What a way to learn about it! Clearly you handled the situation far better than anyone in the medical profession did for you.
I love sharing type 1 diagnosis stories… a special bond of those of us “in the group!” Just like women who share birthing stories… something so deep and life changing. Telling your story to others who can empathize is, in and of itself, healing. As a Health Coach like Katie, I have taken my 15 years of experience learning how to live with this disease, and am now passionate about helping others… especially those relatively newly diagnosed with both type 1 and type 2. I certainly have not figured it all out, but I do wish I had found much… Read more »
Michelle – thank you for sharing about your experience on the day you were diagnosed, I think many can relate to the loneliness you expressed and so vividly remember.
Dale – very clever, made me smile as I am sure others.
And thank you to everyone for your support and feedback!
katie, beautifully written. how incredible of you to open up your heart to share this story that will surely help others cope with the difficult surprises that come their way. well done!
What beautiful writing! You handled a difficult situation with grace — more than we can say for the doctor! ;) I had a stroke at the young age of 24 and am reminded of both an ER doc who, 2 days after, said, “So, you had a stroke- that’s amazing!” …Uhhh…and the neurologist I saw as a follow-up, who saw me in the midst of my stroke at the ER, who commented later that I was “pretty upset” …. are people usually calm when a scary medical emergency is happening to them? I know doctors are people, too, but sometimes… Read more »
Hey Katie…thanks for sharing your article. Nicely done!
That doctor needed more than just medical training. Where was his heart!?
Hi, KJ, Great article! It shows what a remarkable woman that you are and how far you have come since your diagnosis. I love you!
Katie, what a lovely essay! So heartfelt, honest, smart, and vividly descriptive. I “felt it,” – the pain, the bewilderment, the loneliness. Unfortunately your diagnosis story is a variation of tooo many. Hopefully essays like this can reach those who have the opportunity to do it differently (communicating diagnoses, and treatment, and offering support). And I didn’t get the impression your boyfriend was joking as did a previous comment. That hit me in the gut; what an ending, and of course, a beginning…. Looking forward to more blogs from you!! Keep up the great writing….and thanks for sharing.