A Different Sort of Birthday
May 5, 2019: 8:16 pm
I stared at the computer screen, a rubric pulled up on one monitor, and a blank word document on the other. Ten pages. I just needed ten pages. I could barely manage a single word before I rested my head, exhausted on my folded up arms over my keyboard. Just a minute, I told myself. That’s all I need. It turned out I needed far more than just a minute.
May 6, 2020: 5:00 pm
I thought he was kidding. When Dennis Santiago, a friend, fellow high power shooter and writer proposed the idea of a virtual graduation party for me, I was flattered, but kind of laughed. Yet, here I was, along with around 11 other people from the community I so love, on an evening Zoom call. It was wonderful to visit and to see everyone, but the fact that I am officially graduating from college in a few weeks is unreal. The entire time, I could not shake one odd feeling. The virtual party did not feel like a graduation celebration, but rather a birthday party. Despite the congratulations, pertinent topics of conversation and the fact that my birthday lands in December, the feeling still plagued me. It wasn’t until the end of the call that it struck me. I had started an entirely new chapter of my life a year ago.
May 6, 2019: Who knows anymore?
Exhausted. Tear-stained. My shoes placed out of reach across the room. Someone had moved them in the middle of the night, likely when I had managed a few minutes of sleep in between blood draws. I came to accept the pinch of the needles, things I have been terrified of all my life, resigning to the fact that it was my new reality, and that each new prick could hardly be worse those of the night before.
Barely able to remain awake, my brain foggy, my parents urged me to “check my sugar.” A new phrase I hated at the time. Something was wrong. I was falling asleep in classes, while people were talking to me, forgetting things, unable to think. So tired I eventually stopped taking the stairs in my dorm building for fear of falling. No one took the stairs to the tenth floor. No one would find me. The nights were the worst. Rocketing up in the middle of the night with acute pains in my legs, as if someone had cinched zip ties around my muscles that could indefinitely tighten. Nothing seemed to stop it. Eventually, they would subside enough for me to fall back asleep, but not before I had consumed what seemed like the millionth glass of water that evening. I first experienced some of these things in March, but was afraid to talk to my parents about it. I chalked it up to the fact that I was out of shape, tired from taking so many college classes, not understanding school because, who knows, maybe I just wasn’t cut out for all of it like I thought I was. When I told my mom, during finals week of the spring semester, she knew immediately. We did not understand it, and I still held strong that I was just out of shape, cringing at any mention of the word “diabetes.” She took me to my regular doctor, who misdiagnosed me and refused at first to do a blood test. My mom pushed the issue and the results came back, an A1C of 14.4%. I did not know what that meant, only that it was extremely and dangerously high. I was sent home and told to see a specialist, the first appointment available was three weeks later.
I am incredibly thankful to my amazing parents for taking matters into their own hands. For getting me a glucose meter, taking me to the emergency room when my sugar reached a coma level on May 5, and supporting me through my ICU stay.
May 5, 2019 was the night I learned I was Type 1 Diabetic, and May 6, 2019, was the first day I felt awake and alive again, more cognizant than I had been in months.
I tell this story not because I want people to feel bad for me, but I want people to understand. I want people to know what I did not, and not have to go through what I went through. Over one million Americans live with T1D. However, most type 1 diabetics are diagnosed at an early age, in childhood. It is a part of daily life that has always been there. For me, diagnosed at age 20, I knew and knew well what life was before. I know that there are much worse things out there. I am very grateful that Type 1 is treatable. Not preventable, not curable, but treatable. That is the first thing I had to understand.
There is no explanation for why I have it. I did not do anything to cause it. It does not come from a lifestyle choice, what foods you eat, or how much you exercise. It is something within you that comes out or does not for reasons currently unknown. The only treatment is insulin, by either manual injections or through a pump, a device that constantly supplies insulin to the body. Type one diabetics choose to save their own lives every day.
When I received my diagnosis, I jumped to Type 2 diabetes, the only thing I had heard of. I immediately blamed myself and immediately started examining my body for excess weight, something generally associated with Type 2. The truth is, Type 1 and Type 2 are vastly different. Though the science behind it is more complicated, Type 1’s produce little or no insulin. Their pancreas is dead or near it. Type 2’s still produce insulin, but their bodies do not use it effectively. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled and only in more advanced stages requires supplementary insulin. I have always been self-conscious about how I look, and the hardest part of living with this disease has not been the needles, the highs and lows, but rather the ignorance of some. I cannot and do not blame them, as I did not know either. “If you just exercise more…you can’t eat that so we have this for you…just take a pill…you know if you would have done this, you wouldn’t be in this mess.” These are only a few of the types of comments I have received, from people trying to be helpful, but not knowing the truth.
On May 6, 2019, I was released from the ICU. I stayed less than a day, a much shorter stay than most with the same condition, but I truly believe it has a lot to do with my attitude. My mom has always told me that the mind is incredibly powerful. In this pandemic, people who have a will to live and inner strength to get better often do. A negative outlook or attitude can determine the difference between life and death. While thousands of people are fine, every individual is different, and the truth is that I could have died last year. I was in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). In essence, my blood was turning to syrup, my cells were not being fed, and my muscles were breaking down. The doctors were hesitant to say this because of statistics, but the truth is that DKA can kill a person. I at first compared my sugar levels that night, in the 500’s, to those stories I read on the internet of 700 blood sugars. A normal range is 70-130 for non-diabetics. As I have learned and as many have observed with the covid-19 pandemic, no matter what way you view it, the fact is that no one ever knows. Two people may have drastically different circumstances, and the one who appears in better condition may not make it. Who knows.
In short, this year my graduation party celebrated a sort of birthday for me. It is hard to believe how far I have come in a year, how much I have accomplished, and how much I have learned about people. This experience truly made it clear to me who some real friends are and who aren’t, and has made me even more grateful for the people in my life who care about me. I cannot thank everyone who has helped and supported me enough. You know who you are. I share this so that more people understand that it is not easy. I share this so anyone who is facing something similar can perhaps gain strength from this. I share this so that people diagnosed with type one diabetes later in life do not feel alone.