A few years ago, when I was working full-time as a social worker (instead of being a part-time social worker, part-time music teacher, part-time musician, and weekly blogger… why exactly did I switch?), I had a “diabetic episode.” It was terrifying, and it could have been deadly if not for the quick reactions of some good Samaritans who called 911 and helped get me to the hospital.
I was working as a therapist at a residential treatment facility for adolescents. An RTF, as it’s referred to in social work circles (feel free to use that the next time you’re at a cocktail party with your high-society social work friends), is set up to provide 24-hour mental health treatment for clients who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to continue living at home. It can be a very stressful place, both for the adolescent residents who live there (and usually wish they didn’t), and for the staff who must care for these clients around the clock.
As an RTF therapist, you almost become a surrogate parent for your clients. If a client wants to take a trip off campus, you arrange it with his (or her) schedule, clear it with his insurance, arrange transportation, get parental consent, fill out five forms for the agency, check out the van, and then drive your client wherever it is he needs to go. You report every single behavior to the insurance agency paying for the 6–9 month stay; fill out more paperwork than you could possibly imagine; provide individual, group, and family therapy every week for every client; arrange home visits; provide assessments and comprehensive treatment plans; and a number of other weekly tasks too numerous to go into.
Needless to say, the notion of a “working lunch” is the norm for an RTF therapist. In fact, the notion of “no lunch” is pretty common. And that brings me back to my “diabetic episode.”
I was working one of my typical no-lunch, 10-hour days. I had just conducted a family therapy session, and I had to drive the client’s mother back to the train station. On the whole, this is easier than driving a client, as there’s not much paperwork to be filled out if you’re driving an adult somewhere (adults can take care of themselves in the eyes of managed care).
I knew I was “a little low,” but I had become so accustomed to waiting to take care of myself that I made the incredibly poor decision to drive her the few miles to the train station, and then take care of my blood glucose. To top it off, I had used the last of my glucose tablets already that morning, and had nothing on me to take care of a situation like this. Bad decision count for the day: two.
We hopped into the van, and made it to the train station. By this point, I was having a hard time responding to simple questions, and I think she even asked me before leaving, “are you OK?”. I responded with, “uh huh”, and decided I could make it BACK to the RTF instead of going into the convenience store about 100 feet from the train station. My reason? I had a mountain of paperwork still to do, and I at least wanted to leave work by 7:00. Bad decision count: three.
I turned onto the road leading back to work, but as I drove, panic set in. I wasn’t thinking clearly, I was sweating, and my vision was starting to blur. I drove right past the RTF, knowing I missed it but unable to figure out how to make the turn. I continued down the road, by some miracle avoiding a collision. I saw a large dirt parking lot, and pulled into it. I could see that it was a nursery of some kind, with rows of pine trees, a greenhouse, and a little wooden storefront. I stopped the van, and within 30 seconds all went black.
I woke up in the ambulance, the EMT calmly informing me “you’ve had an low blood sugar episode, we’re on our way to the hospital.” The men working at the nursery had seen me pull into their parking lot and lose consciousness. They came out immediately, saw I was in trouble, and called 911. If these men had not acted as they did, I wouldn’t be writing this blog today. I don’t know their names, their faces, or anything about them, but they saved my life.
I spent the night at the hospital for observation before being cleared to return home. I took the next few days off work, using the time to recover and reflect on what I had gone through. There were a lot of lessons to be learned from the incident; some practical, some philosophical. It was a terrifying, profound experience, one that I will always carry with me. It has impacted how I work, how I think, and how I live day-to-day. Over the next few weeks, I will explore some of the lessons I learned from the experience here, so stay tuned.
I will close with my customary invitation to readers to share your stories with us — what happened, what was it like to go through it, what did you learn? I also invite caregivers, friends, and loved ones who have had their child, spouse, or friend go through something like this. An event like this has an impact on everyone involved, and your voices are just as important.