On my hour-long drives to reach my diabetes clinic, I have been reflecting a bit more on one of my leading roles in life: playing the part of the patient. What does this mean? In high school, it simply meant showing up at the doctor’s office a few times a year, rolling my eyes as the medical staff gave advice, and grumbling to Mom on the car rides home about how unfair it was that I spent my Christmas break getting blood drawn while my friends were back home goofing off at the local shopping mall. (Someone give me an Academy Award, right?).
If you ask a classroom full of kindergarteners what they want to be when they grow up, you’ll hear: “Firefighter!” “Policewoman!” “Doctor!” “Mom!” “Dad!” “Astronaut!” and other ambitious goals called out. You probably won’t hear “Patient” mentioned.
Being a Patient is not an occupation one normally chooses; rather, we are chosen. And we rise to the occasion. (Yes, Grammar Police, Patient deserves a capital “P” because it is a 24/7/365 job and it takes incredible strength to play this part).
When I was almost three years old and my biggest concern was building snowmen outside, diabetes chose me. While my parents handled the majority of my care in childhood, I was simply along for the ride. Now as an adult tasked with keeping myself alive despite a rebellious pancreas each day, I do have a choice: to sit back and get dragged by my hair when the diabetes roller coaster comes barreling towards me, or to take a deep breath and give it my all as a Patient. It just sort of happens that this fight becomes a part of your heart and soul.
Whether used in the context of diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, or simply a head cold, the term “patient” can carry a negative connotation in some regards. Patient? You must be sick, then? You might be lower on the totem pole of power than the doctor, nurse, or other health care providers treating you at the office? You are not as “in control” as you would like to be? Perhaps that control is in someone else’s hands at your medical appointments?
Let’s look on the positive side for a minute, though. (See ya, Negative Nancy!) Being a Patient is empowering. Look no farther than the diabetic online community (DOC) if you need any concrete evidence. We are more than the “patient as an occupation” title. We are pillars of strength for one another while balancing our other jobs in life. Playing the role of the Patient is part of us, and this purpose in life is something to embrace. Even if one day that elusive cure finally gets figured out by a brainiac doctor, I believe that our hearts will not change; we will continue to be Patients, whether for our own health situations or for those of others who need our assistance, no matter the medical conditions.
Fighting for my health has become such a part of my life that somewhere along the journey I fell in love with advocating for myself as the patient, with giving it my all and expecting to get the same effort back from my health care team. In recent years I have taken on a more active role as the Patient: printing out my own continuous glucose monitor (CGM) charts prior to my appointments and eating lunch with one hand while clutching my cell phone to my ear with the other hand- briefing my insulin pump representative on what I believe to have identified as a product defect. You get the picture. I’m involved in my health care, to the point where some days I wear myself out obsessing about a disease that can indeed be tamed, but never completely tied down.
As I drive away from my endocrinology appointments, I often wonder, How do they do it? How do my doctors and nurses maintain composure while they comfort us in the face of human suffering each day? But there is also more to that story. There is the Patient who is on the receiving-end of the suffering, too. Perhaps doctors and nurses go home and wonder, How do THEY do it? How do our Patients fight that battle each and every day? The simple answer is that we all do it. We put on our game faces and we march on, even on the bad days. We do this for ourselves and for each other- for the respective roles in life that we all play, whether Doctor, Nurse, Patient, Caregiver.
Being the Patient is hard work. It requires blood, sweat, tears, urine labs, lack of sleep, hunger, thirst, and more tears. It also requires humor and perspective if one is to keep on, keepin’ on. Honesty is the best policy, but it is also a vulnerable one. “This is where it hurts” gets caught in my throat many days. Sometimes it is easier to hike up my shirt to show my doctor a bruised insulin pump site than it is to tell her about the other types of pain- about why too much or too little insulin keeps me in a mental purgatory of sorts. When she touches at that particular pain, I might not stand as still and as stoic as I do for the needles.
While it hurts to fully-disclose our insecure thoughts, letting the wall down for a moment is part of being fully-invested as a patient. Doctors and nurses cannot thoroughly help us unless we allow them to do so. Engagement is a two-way street. It starts with vocalizing what’s on your mind so that you and your doctor can make a strategic plan. It may not always be, “This is what hurts.” It may be, “This is what works. How do we make it even better?”
Recently, my internal mantra when I go to see my doctor is try to be honest with your feelings. Not in the sense that I ever maliciously lied to doctors before, but more in the sense that perhaps I was not yet ready to be open and to expose all of my struggles previously. Maybe I was so hung up on tweaking my overnight basal insulin rates that I was disregarding that my breakfast boluses were in need of immediate assistance? Even if I have to begin with small, “baby Tylenol” doses of readiness, starting somewhere counts for a lot more than never starting in the first place.
“So, Doctor. My name is Ally. I am your Patient. And this is where it hurts…”