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Love and Learning

A husband and wife explore diabetes together

There’s life with diabetes and then there’s love with diabetes. Husband-and-wife writers Stu Sherman and Elisabeth Donnelly provide both sides of learning to take care of a loved one with diabetes – and learning how to let go and accept the help.

I have had type 1 diabetes for twenty-six-years. Over the course of these years, I have tried to maintain as much control over my blood sugar as possible. I rarely let anyone inject me. I insist on pricking my own finger, even at my medical checkups. I have never let anyone insert an infusion set since I was first given an insulin pump ten years ago.

Self-reliance is a great thing, but there are downsides: the people in my life have no idea about what I’m doing. I shut them out. With the exception of my endocrinologist, no one really knows about my diabetes care, which is a major part of my life.  Recently, while talking with my wife Elisabeth, I realized that this is both dangerous and selfish.

When I started dating Stu, in some ways, I barely knew he was living with diabetes. We talked about it, but it was just something that he was, something different, the way that his being Jewish was different from my Catholic background. When Stu and I met, he was getting close to his twenty-year anniversary of living with diabetes. Consequently, he’s very self-sufficient; he has good blood sugar numbers, checks himself throughout the day, and exercises regularly. My only real responsibility when it comes to Stu’s diabetes amounts to sometimes driving the car when he needs to keep an eye on his blood sugar levels.

Since moving out of my parents’ house, I have always had a glucagon kit wherever I’ve lived. I haven’t given it much thought beyond that I’m supposed to have one. But when Elisabeth recently asked me about it, I realized that she had no idea how or when to use that red plastic container. We kept talking, and I realized that in our six years together, I had told her very little about my care, and how to help me in an emergency.

We decided to spend a couple of afternoons talking about diabetes, teaching her how to check my blood, inject me, insert my insulin pump, and finally practice loading up the glucagon needle so she didn’t have to do it for the first time under duress. In an emergency, it can be hard to think straight, and we believe that practicing for such a situation is the best way to prepare. So I bought a few oranges, pulled out a few needles, and tried to prepare myself for an afternoon of being both teacher and pincushion.

I’m not comfortable around needles, and there have been times when Stu is doing something mundane around diabetes where he’s blasé and I get the shivers. The jitters were going to have to be the first thing to go even in a hypothetical emergency situation.

But before we explored the mechanics, Stu and I had a sit-down where he talked to me about diabetes and I wrote down the facts. I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know everything about diabetes, that I confused the symptoms of high blood sugar and the symptoms of low blood sugar, which would be very dangerous in an emergency.

Once I felt flush with knowledge, we moved onto the mechanics. Stu taught me how to check his blood – a lancet gun makes everything easier, but my first attempts still resulted in wimpy pinpricks that didn’t produce enough blood. Stu explained to me that I needed to use more force, and I eventually got over my nerves and improved.

Then we moved on to changing the insulin pump, a process that has a lot of moving parts. I was slower than Stu. My hands got shaky siphoning the insulin into the cannula. But I had an easier time with the needle in this task, since Stu said that it should be like a ripping off a Band-Aid. Short and quick.

Despite my years of experience with the knowledge that injections hurt very little, I was still nervous being the first person she had ever injected with a needle. Three injections later, I was confident she had mastered it. And not one moment of searing pain! Testing my blood took a little more effort, since my fingers are pretty heavily callused. However, having a lancet device made it quite easy. And since she didn’t share my bad habit of using the same location every time, she was actually better at getting enough blood on the first draw than I was.

The afternoon culminated in the hypoglycemic drill, which went smoothly, although the blood draw was hard to do since I was lying down, and getting a solid injection site took more effort with me pretending to be deadweight. However, after it was done, we were both confident that in a true emergency she would be prepared. And, just as importantly, she had been let in on an important part of my life.

The hypoglycemic drill was the culmination of all the skills I learned that day, and all the oranges I so ruthlessly stabbed with syringes for practice. It is scary to see your partner passed out, even pretending, but I took some deep breaths and jumped in, checking his blood sugar, trying to wake him up, and then running upstairs to get the glucagon needle. I had trouble finding a good insertion site, since it was hard to mess with Stu’s clothes when he was dead weight, but once I got there, putting the needle in his body was easier. I was finally getting familiar with needles.

The best takeaway from the day was that I got a deeper understanding of Stu’s diabetes. Writing down all the basics and what to do in emergency gave me a toolkit to work with in the worst case scenarios, but more importantly, it gave me a sense of how I can help him, and how I can take responsibility when necessary. It was an empowering day, facing down diabetes, and knowing that I can handle it.

Learn how to prepare a disaster response toolkit here.

Stu Sherman is an attorney, writer, and health policy wonk. His writing has appeared in Anthem Magazine, PopMatters, and xoJane. He was a big winner on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and promptly blew his winnings on law school. He’s lived with type 1 diabetes for twenty-six years. Elisabeth Donnelly is a writer, editor, and social media strategist. Sherman and Donnelly are paid contributors for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.   

© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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