April 22, 1986 was a Tuesday. I had just finished last period gym class and was in the locker room with my 7th grade gang of girlfriends deciding whose house to go to after school. This decision usually involved three factors: whose house followed the same walking route as wherever our gang of boyfriends was headed, whose house had the best snacks and whose mom didn’t mind when her home was invaded by twelve giggling girls. (We did not travel light in those day.)
I, so often the ringleader, shook my head and said, “Can’t. I have a doctor’s appointment.”
“Again? You had one last week! Is this about that thing in your eye again?” asked one girlfriend referring to an unexplained stye the week before.
“No, my mom thinks I have diabetes.” I said this casually because I didn’t really think it could be true. I suppose if I had thought about it carefully enough, as I would years later, I’d have been able to admit that I wasn’t myself lately. I was tired and cold, lacking some of my usual tom-boy-but-girly-girl, jock-in-cute-clothing energy. I didn’t feel like myself. But I still didn’t think I could have that.
“No WAY!” Sarah shouted, suddenly all riled up. “My sister has diabetes. There is NO WAY you have it.”
There, she was clearly an expert. Pit her against my mother and her dog-eared Dr. Spock book. So what if I’d been chugging through the week’s supply of milk by Wednesday? So what if I’d gone from already thin to downright gaunt? Sarah knew what she was talking about.
But I parted ways with my friends and trudged on home where my mom and my six-week-old brother escorted me to our pediatrician’s office. I guess I wasn’t really surprised when he walked through the door, after checking the results of a quick finger prick blood test, placed his hands squarely on my knees and looked me in the eyes. This grandfatherly man, who I’d known all my life, now on the verge of retirement.
“Does diabetes run in your family?”
“Nope.” Still casual.
“Well, now it does.”
That was the first time a doctor’s words changed my life.
He told us to go home, pack a bag and head to Rainbow. All of this sounded fine to me until he said I’d be in the hospital for five to seven days. That was not okay. Chronic disease or not, I had a school dance to go to on Friday afternoon. And hospital or not, I had a boy to slow dance with.
But–doctor’s orders, so home we went and, while my mom fixed dinner for my brothers, I packed my bag with a phone cradled under my ear, calling as many girlfriends as I could manage. Most were shocked, one cried, my best friend’s brother thought I was kidding. More than one asked, “But what about Friday?” This dance was no small matter.
My dad came home from work early and we headed down to Rainbow Babies’ & Children’s, a hospital that would become my second home more than two decades later. The four of us boarded the elevator — 13-year-old me, consumed with the horrors of missing the school dance, my parents, consumed with the horrors of having a suddenly sick child, and my baby brother, strapped onto my dad’s chest in what we now know is a Bjorn but what they then thought was a “Snugglie.”
Now this next part I don’t actually remember, being as consumed as I was with above-mentioned horrors, but my mom told me about it many years later. The elevator door opened before we reached our floor to let on a boy, just about my age, except that he was in a wheelchair. And he was bald.
You know what they thought. My parents, whose world had turned upside down, who were overwhelmed with shock, fear and worry . . . you know what they thought. It’s what most of us would think. At least it’s not cancer. They leaned into each other, in their safe corner of the elevator, and they knew. They knew that we could do this. They knew that we would be okay.
And we were, but I’m not there yet. Minutes later we were settling into my room, answering question after question from doctor after doctor and nurse after nurse and intern after intern. And every single time someone new walked in, my mom would announce, unasked, unprovoked, that I had gotten my first period the week before. Can you say mortified? This could not possibly be relevant! I would scowl and hiss, “Mah-ahm,” turning that simple short word into two suddenly vicious syllables.
She said it hopefully, as if she actually expected some doctor to throw his clipboard into the air and exclaim, “Oh, that explains it! The ol’ first period-diabetes diagnosis mix-up again!”
No such luck there. Instead I stayed in the hospital for five days, learning how to test my blood sugar and count my carbs and administer my shots. My parents and brothers had to learn too, how to spot a low-blood sugar reaction and what to do about it, what it felt like to give and get a shot. We went around the room, first practicing with saline-filled syringes on oranges and then on each other’s arms. Take that, brothers, who were mostly concerned with whether or not they could still eat donuts on Saturday mornings.
But we all learned and we all made the necessary life changes and we took it in stride. I took it in stride. Right at that moment when I gaining some independence from my parents, diabetes just became another part of taking care of myself. It just became another part of who I was, who I am.
And don’t worry, I didn’t forget: The hospital granted me a two-hour leave of absence on Friday afternoon and my parents picked me up in the minivan and dropped me at my middle school for the dance. I mean, THE dance.
And yes, I got my slow dance.