When I Grow Up, I Want to be a… Patient!

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…”

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To-Do List.

1.) Get cured of diabetes.  Preferrably, like, tomorrow.

2.) Until number 1 happens, drink lots of coffee.

3.) Attempt shorter blog posts so that we all don’t need reading glasses when surfing the web.

4.) Get through the next month of school and then tackle a few issues.  There are not enough support options for diabetics in my local area, and that doesn’t sit well with me.  The good news is that a few people can get the ball rolling and change that.  I plan to be one of those people.

5.) Focus on helping others more. I have been so preoccupied with my own health that I need to maintain perspective that others suffer just as much, if not more. And maybe from things other than diabetes.

6.) Keeping number 5 in mind, stop feeling guilty about it.  Accept that maybe it did need to be all about me for a few days because, well, I needed your help with the pump stuff, and you all delivered and then some.

7.) Buy cookies for nurse, pump rep, and doctor before appointment next week.  Because heck yes, I’m going to walk into a diabetes clinic with baked goods coated in sprinkles. And heck yes, I’m going to feed the people taking their lunch breaks to troubleshoot problems with me because they are the epitome of what it means to show kindness and consideration in health care delivery.

 

Good day, folks.

 

“My doctor is showing up, so I probably should be, too.”

A friend- let’s call her Kayla- made this comment in a grad class we are taking together this month in regards to her former interactions with a doctor.  As a teenager, Kayla was understandably a bit defiant in terms of complying with her physician’s advice.  Weren’t we all?  But one day she had an epiphany: What was the point of attending the appointments if she was not willing to be open, honest, and determined in the process of seeking care?  “My doctor is showing up, so I probably should be, too,” Kayla realized.  She changed her outlook and told the doctor her concerns while soaking up his recommendations, taking baby steps until she was comfortable to set more progressive goals along the road to getting better.

The class laughed and we all nodded our heads in agreement.  We can go to the doctor multiple times a month to get bandages placed on our respective health maladies, but this is only temporary relief for pain and suffering that is long-term in nature if it involves chronic illness.  We must not simply “show up” with our physical presences, but also with our attitudes.

I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and I hope to carry Kayla’s mantra with me.  I want to “show up” with my “game face” on, ready to tackle the issues.  My doctor is strong for me every time I seek her help, so I must, in turn, be brave when making the adjustments she suggests.

Thank you to everyone who offered words of support during my rough day yesterday.  Unfortunately, those days happen more often than I would like for various uncontrollable reasons.  Chronic illness is like trying to stop a leaky faucet by clogging it with a piece of Swiss cheese.  When you fix one spot, another issue can always arise.  My pump site is working well today, but my allergies might cause my liver to release sugar and my blood glucose levels to increase, for example.  Alas, it is a new day and I am thankful that the diabetic online community understands what I mean.

Enjoy the rest of your weekends.  Here’s to a week of good health for everyone.

True Life: I’m afraid of spiders and insulin, in that order.

Without fail, every summer night when I go outside to get in my car, a few yellow spiders are hanging out on the hood and roof.  When I approach, they look at me as if I am interrupting their block party.  After catapulting myself into the driver’s seat a la Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider, I give myself the “spider pep talk.”

“Ally, you are better than this.  It’s one moment in time.  Try to forget about them and get on with your life.”

If only the “take your insulin” pep talk was that easy…

Every type 1 diabetic understands the rocky relationship that we entertain with insulin.  We can’t live without it, but sometimes living with it makes the act of living really, really difficult.  Like the times when it almost kills us at 3:34 am with a blood glucose reading of 45 mg/dL when we inadvertently over-calculate the spike effect of pizza for dinner by bolusing heavily.  Or the times when we hit a bad pump site at insertion and the cannula kinks and suddenly we want to drink water out of a fire hydrant like dogs do in 1960s cartoons.  Those times, and any other times that insulin doesn’t work perfectly.  Which is almost every time.  Because. insulin. does. not. replace. a. normally. functioning. pancreas!!!!  As we have all heard many times before, insulin sustains life, but it is not a cure for diabetes.

I will delve further into my own struggles with insulin as we progress in our blogger-bloggee courtship, but for now just know this: I sincerely appreciate the discovery of insulin and how much diabetes technology has changed over the course of my 23 out of 26 years of life spent as a type 1 diabetic.  Every time I go to Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, I look at the murals on the walls in the lower level of the building which depict some of the history of insulin, and I am so thankful to be a diabetic “now” as opposed to “then.”  But I also fear and respect this life-saving commodity for the abusive lover that it sometimes is to all of us.  I have a tendency to “under-bolus” because of the trauma that over-bolusing has caused in the past.  Whew- the hardest step is admitting that you have a problem, right?

We are stuck in an ongoing oxymoron of sorts.  We can’t take too little insulin or our sugar will be high; we can’t take too much insulin or our sugar will be low.  And many of us grew up with the dreaded lecture from (insert whoever is applicable for you) ____________ (doctor, parent, school nurse, etc.) if we did not perform flawless algebra to compute the correct “insulin to carb to exercise to stress to illness to social life” ratios every time we took insulin.

But you know what?  Once I admitted that the problem was there, a doctor looked me in the eye and told me that it was okay.  Hers was not a lecture of blame.  She told me that I could forgive myself, that I did not have to spend the rest of my days in self-imposed “diabetic timeout.”  She told me that it was normal to be frustrated, that trying to play the role of a perfect pancreas every day was “not a good look” because it was essentially bullying myself, giving myself that loathsome lecture that I never really deserved in the first place.  But why give yourself that negative commentary when you fully understand that diabetes is not so cut and dry?  You are not an outsider to the disease, so do not treat yourself like you are.

I understand that I have the tools to do this, to improve and maintain my health. Not carrying “survivor’s guilt” of sorts is difficult for all of us who put in 110% effort every day only to have diabetes knock us on our asses with a herculean effort when we least expect it.  What truly matters is that we have already entered the boxing ring.  We have given ourselves the “insulin pep talk.”  We have calculated the carbs in the 5 crackers that we snacked on and pressed a few buttons on our insulin pumps to account for them.  And if we forgot to do so, or if we mistakenly took half a unit of Humalog less than what we should have taken to achieve an ideal blood sugar goal, so be it.  We have tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.

And we keep showing up at the boxing ring ready for a fight, which is more than most people can say…