A Few Good Nurses

For a couple of years, I have kept this story close to the vest, mostly because I felt quite vulnerable sharing it.  I still feel sensitive, but the timing is now right to tell the tale.  We are seeing many headlines in the news about nurses today.  As far as diabetes blog headlines go, I hope you’ll take a few moments to read this one and to thank a deserving nurse.

Winter.  I had recently started grad school and I was optimistically trying to do #AllOfTheThings.  This included a regular, intensive gym schedule, a disciplined diet, and very little sleep- just the right ratio of “healthy” ingredients to convince myself that I was not running on vapors in reality.

I booked an appointment with my diabetes nurse, as I was experiencing more frequent insulin pump site problems.  We needed to find viable locations for site changes, or perhaps to discover a different type of infusion set that worked better for my body type.  Also attending the appointment would be a nurse employed by the insulin pump company.

At the appointment, we had all of our diabetes ducks lined up in a row: various infusion set types, reservoirs, alcohol swabs, IV prep, and Humalog vials.

Historically, I stuck to the abdominal area for pump site changes.  We wondered if significant scar tissue had developed, causing the numerous pump site failures.

“Alright, can I take a look at your sites?” D (diabetes) Nurse asked.

“Yeah…” I replied, eyes darting to the floor.  I felt weak as I handed the control of the situation over to the healthcare professionals.  It’s my body, but now I have to trust someone else with it.

D Nurse gently felt around for scar tissue, but did not find much despite my long-term insulin pump usage.  P.S. (pump site) Nurse from the pump company inspected the same areas and came to the same conclusions: no scar tissue, but not much pump site “real estate” to work with.

“Geez, no wonder these sites are hurting you.  You don’t have much padding to use!” P.S. Nurse said, making eye contact with D Nurse as if to communicate, “This might be a difficult appointment…”.

In terms of pump sites, my extra sit-ups after the gym workouts were not helping matters much.  (Now that I am in my last semester of grad school, I assure you that extra sit-ups are a thing of the past!)

“You can try leg, back, or upper butt sites whenever you feel comfortable.  But for today, if you want to continue with the stomach, we can do that,” D Nurse said.

“Okay,” I replied nervously.

We all knew what was coming: the “trial and error” method of identifying infusion sets that would work well for me.  The nurses had to be sure that I was inserting the sets properly and that we were not overlooking a better option.  Like many diabetics, I have endured thousands of needles in my lifetime.  Although unpleasant, at some point you get accustomed to the momentary pokes and prods and you do not dwell on them.  Regardless, even at the age of twenty-five, it was a harrowing thought to know that my stomach would soon be a pincushion.

First, I showed them how I inserted my sets.  The process was automatic and quick.  The nurses agreed that I performed every step correctly and we could cross my name off the list of possible suspects causing the site failures.

“Your skin is tough- literally and figuratively.  I think you may be getting some resistance from the insertion devices, which could be kinking the cannulas as they go into your body.  Can I try an insertion?”  P.S. Nurse asked.

I nodded and allowed her to try without protesting.

“Okay, that was good but I felt the kick-back with the inserter.  What if we manually put the site in?  You could insert the needle by hand, without an insertion device, and perhaps you can curtail the bent cannulas that way,” P.S. Nurse suggested.

Whaaaat?!  I wanted nothing to do with that idea, but was also willing to try anything to get the sites to work better.  I made a feeble attempt at manual insertion and watched as the needle bounced back off my skin.  Defeated, I slumped down in the chair.

“Do you mind if I try it?” P.S. Nurse asked.

I liked how she always sought my permission before attempting anything.  The control was still in my hands to an extent, even though she now held the needle.

“You’re doing so well.  You’re so brave,” D Nurse whispered.  She wiped the dried blood off of my stomach using alcohol swabs, distracting me while P.S. Nurse prepped for the final insertion.

And just like that, it was over.  P.S. Nurse swiftly launched the needle into my side, and I did not feel more than a minor pinch.  We high-fived and hugged afterwards, proud of our hard work.

That appointment lasted a few hours.  While it may not have been as draining as receiving chemotherapy or undergoing heart surgery, I can tell you truthfully that it was an exhausting afternoon for all of us.  Emotions were high in the face of uncertainty, and we had to trust and communicate with one another.  If it hurt, the nurses were right there to make it hurt less.  Likewise, I had to admit when it did hurt, when I did need their help.

In my lifetime of medical appointments, I have felt the cold stainless steel of stethoscopes from nurses and doctors alike.  I can attest to the other tools that nurses use: infusion set needles, alcohol swabs, bandages, medical tape, bear hugs, TLC.  A few good nurses can change the entire course of an appointment, making it go from “scary” to “It’s going to be okay” as they work steadfastly to heal their patients.  Nurses often handle the difficult moments behind the scenes, with little fanfare.  They comfort patients like me when we are scared.  They make it hurt less.  And they deserve to hear “thank you” more often in our society.

46.

46

Excuse the blurry image, but I’m sure many of you can commiserate: It is near impossible to take a good photo when your hands are wobbling like leaves in the wind, your heart is beating so far out of your chest that it has relocated itself to your brain where it continues to throb so loudly that you can hear it in your ears, and, to quote Eminem, your “palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.”  Yup, that’s a 46 mg/dL hypoglycemic event for ya…

Check out that diamond level ski slope on the CGM, too.  This was not your average low.  This one knocked me on my ass; sorry, but there isn’t a better way to put it.  It was a total beat-down delivered by the notorious bully, type 1 diabetes, and it left me pretty banged up.  I have not had a hypo like that in years.  I iced my bruises and got on with my life afterwards, but the sting was still there, and in some ways, it still is a few days later.

I remember waking up the morning of my senior year of college to a reading of 39 on my blood glucose meter, but I do not remember the same level of “you just got run over by a bus filled with screaming diabetics and then it reversed over you while shooting insulin into your wounds” sort of blood sugar hangover that I endured this weekend.

I must admit that I drank alcohol the night before.  He is a cute guy, he was driving, it was our first time getting drinks, and we frolicked all over the city.  I ate more than I normally do that day, and I monitored my blood sugar closely the entire time.  (You know you’ve found a potential winner when he makes sure to ask if your blood sugar is okay through out the night, FYI).  Anyway…  I am not sure if alcohol played a role here in terms of my liver’s functionality to release sugar.  This hypoglycemic event happened 12 hours after we had been out, and I was not severely intoxicated by any means.  I guess the diabetes guilt trip thing is taking precedence because all I seem to see is “well, this was somehow your fault” if I close my eyes and think about it.  It makes dealing with the reality of the really, reallyyy close call that I had a little bit more bearable in that I can control it in that way: “Bad Ally, be more responsible.”  It’s like the self-imposed diabetic version of the nuns in Catholic grade school, only with fewer trips to the timeout corner.

Well, I’m 26 and I think I deserved a drink with a friend after working and studying all week.  I know that is what my kind doctor would say if she even heard me mention the blame game.  This was not entirely my fault.  I will blog about this extensively later, but I am not in the mood to tell the tale right now.  The long story short is that I experience many problems with pump site insertions almost every time I change the pump.  It is a combination of bad timing and annoying factors; when my nurse finally finds a good location with “virgin skin” to try for a pump site (right now we’ve moved onto the lower back), then there will be some odd defect in the pump product randomly, and so on.  It is a series of unfortunate events that we are working to fix.  I had changed my pump after I got back from going out.  I woke up a few hours later to the Dexcom alerting to a 350 and the nausea that only ketones can cause.  Blah.  I dragged myself out of bed and changed the site, took a manual injection, and set alarms to check on my sugar for the remainder of the evening.

I slowly but surely came down from the high like a deflated balloon.  350 to 300 to 240 to 190 to 150 to 90 to 70 at wake up.  Perfect.  I made a mini bagel which was 20 carbs, ate it quickly, and planned to make eggs.  But then I felt so nauseous that I had to rest my head in bed again.  The nerves kicked in.  I’m low but I feel sick.  Should I call an ambulance?  Relax.  You just talked about this with your doctor.  She told you that you could do it, that you know exactly how to treat a low, that you are not dumb, that you are strong enough to face this.  That conversation had occurred on Monday, and in some soul-searching kind of way it rang in my ears as I consciously made a decision to fight for my life in that moment.  I did not quite realize what was happening yet because my mind was hazy from the low.  I was not simply “low”; I was in fight or flight mode, moments away from passing out.  It was like someone hit me over the head with a few unintended units of Humalog and I was staggering to keep my balance.  I wish that I was being my normal 20-something-year-old-female-dramatic-self, but I am not; this was a dire situation and it pains me to admit that.  I live by myself, so it was up to me to solve this problem in its immediacy.

The Dexcom continuous glucose monitor snapped me out of my fog momentarily to comprehend what was happening.  It was alarming repeatedly and I looked over and saw “LOW” in red writing.  Yeah, I know.  I clicked on the center button to see what my actual glucose reading was and gasped.  46 with a down arrow.  I lethargically stumbled to the fridge and chugged a bottle of juice before eating an entire cabinet full of food.  The rebound high blood sugar was very persistent, but I suspect a lot of that had to do with the fact that my liver had released sugar to keep me conscious while in the throes of the low.

All in all, 46 scared me.  It was a reminder of just how fragile life sometimes is with diabetes.  It knocked me off my pedestal and left a handprint across my face that lasted for hours.  My friends sent nervous text messages; my parents called to check in multiple times during the weekend.  I must accept that sometimes these lows may come out of the blue, as diabetes is a malicious jerk; we’ve been over this.  However, my doctor was right: I have 23 years of practice handling diabetes since my diagnosis at age 3; I know what to do.  But I sure am grateful that the Dexcom CGM was there to remind me as well.

I do not believe that the outcome would have been as favorable had Dexcom’s persistence not been there during the 46.  This is all the more evidence for Medicare and private insurance companies to cover continuous glucose monitoring for all diabetics.  And it is also all the more reason to hug your family, friends, doctors, and nurses tightly, to get down on your knees and pray for a cure, and to continue to support the diabetic online community in its advocacy efforts.  In the past, others were not as blessed to have CGM access as I was this weekend.  That concept is not lost on me.  I carry you all in my heart, and I promise to keep fighting on the bad days because of inspirational people like you.  Thank you…

Don’t Cry?

As type one diabetics- many of us diagnosed as children- we learned from a young age to be tough.  Grown adults cried like sissies getting their flu shots at the health clinic while we stood still with stoic faces.  One of my strongest memories is of my first endocrinologist’s office. I had just turned three years old and was getting accustomed to insulin injections and finger pricks. This particular office in the Worcester, MA, area performed A1C tests by drawing blood from their subjects’ arms with syringes and then sending the samples off to the lab. Pretty caveman-like if you ask me…

Well, I was three years old and a few nurses were pinning me down to stab me with a long needle. Naturally, I cried. We went back to that office a few more times. I can still visualize the indoor playground they once had in their waiting room, until someone became fearful of liability and it was removed. My mother tried to comfort me, telling me to be strong. “Try not to cry,” she said. What else could she really say? I was going to get shots for the rest of my life, so the sooner I learned not to fight this concept, the better for all of us.

At the next appointment, I bit my bottom lip and braced myself for the impact of the syringe in my tiny arm. I didn’t cry my usual amount, but I whimpered a bit.

“I didn’t cry!” I proclaimed as we walked through the parking lot afterwards.

“You didn’t…?” Mom asked.

She was not trying to come off as cold, but was rather incredulous at how my young mind had just rationalized away all of the tears flooding the examination room a few minutes earlier.

I had the three-year-old version of an “Ah ha” moment, in which I realized that okay, I had cried. But I wasn’t going to cry anymore. I resigned myself to this fact, and at the next appointment I did not cry. I had accepted my fate in some small way; shots were here to stay.

Shortly thereafter my parents took me to the renowned Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, a decision partially prompted by the fact that their A1C tests were performed with simple finger pricks as opposed to modern-day torture tactics. Over two decades later, I am still a Joslin girl. And I still fight back my tears sometimes, but I am slowly learning that it can be healthy to let them out once in a while, too. There is certain strength in vulnerability, in showing that you hurt emotionally and/or physically but that you are going to get through that pain.

I cannot speak for every type one diabetic out there, but I would venture to guess that some of you have difficulties letting your guard down at times, too. How can we complain about a head cold when we have endured thousands and thousands of injections over the years? I can’t believe my boyfriend is upset that he lost his football game! Seriously?!!  But the reality is that these are human emotions and normal trials and tribulations of life, even if these situations are not a life or death fight as diabetes sometimes can be. It is more natural to express what you are feeling than to avert your eyes to the ground while feverishly blinking back tears. Trust me, I have been there, done that, and many times at that rate.

I see today that my mentality of always being strong was a survival tactic yet a detriment all at once. Some days I have a quick temper because it is easier to be angry than to acknowledge being scared or defeated.  I am my own worst enemy when it comes to epic PMS-y Facebook rants, but this is an excuse.  Sure, we were dealt very frustrating hands by being diagnosed with diabetes.  The general public misunderstands the constant battles we endure.  We rarely get a break from the burdens of this disease.

But at the same time, if I cut the BS and allow myself to say, “Okay, your blood sugar is high and you’re afraid of the long-term damage this could do to your body, and you’re tired from being up all night responding to Dexcom alarms, and you’re stressed with ‘normal people’ factors like work and grad school,” then yeah, I am a human being. It is okay to cry.  It is okay to be fearful.  It is okay to feel, to admit that sometimes pump site and CGM changes hurt like hell even though you told yourself that the pain was the least of your problems years ago.

And I said that yesterday, too. To which my doctor replied, “But it’s not the least of your problems if you’re shooting a pump site into muscle because you have no ‘real estate’ left that is free of scar tissue.”  Fair enough, and directly to the point.  She is right.  Acknowledge that it is a big deal, Ally.

Sometimes crying makes one braver than not crying.  At least crying invokes honest, real emotion from which we can grow.  I’m ready to ditch the war paint if it means connecting with others on a more meaningful, understanding level.