Diabetes Stories

My dad is a great storyteller. He turns fact into vivid, thrilling fiction, and my children are a rapt audience. When he was a teenager he had a summer job mowing the greens at a golf course, and one morning the grass was especially wet with dew and he slipped in his sneakers and lost his big toe to the mower. He has at least five different stories about how he lost his toe (each one more fantastical than the next) that range from a fight with a polar bear to a rollercoaster ride gone wrong.


The other night he told a story that I’d forgotten. My sister and I were visiting the family compound in Maine for our annual summer vacation with our families. As we sat on the deck overlooking the lake, Dad told the story of my younger sister’s diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 1985. It was Memorial Day weekend and my sister Erin and I traveled to Philadelphia with our mom to visit our grandparents. Erin hadn’t been feeling well all week. She’d told Mom days before that she couldn’t ride the bus to school because she got too thirsty on the ride. Mom made an appointment with our pediatrician, but Erin said she felt better by the end of the week, so we continued with our plans for the holiday weekend. We got in the car after school on Friday and drove to Philadelphia. During the drive mom had to stop the car so often for my sister to go to the bathroom that the seven-hour drive turned into nine hours. By the time we arrived, my sister’s clothes were soaked through with urine.

In the morning we went to Bloomingdale’s to shop. I was graduating from eighth grade the following week. We dragged Erin through the aisles, handing her Orange Julius drinks every time she complained of thirst. I wandered between the displays of dresses, running my hands along the long, white silky gowns. Grabbing three long white dresses, I ignored my sister who rested in a shopping cart. Home from shopping, Mom left me with my grandmother and took Erin to the hospital where she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Her blood sugar was so high, 900 mg/dl from all the juice we’d given her to quench her thirst, that she was nearly comatose. Her blood was acidic and blood gas tests were ordered. The doctors feared the high levels of ketones in my sister’s system might produce kidney failure, and an EKG machine was brought into the room.

My dad didn’t know this part of the story because he was Maine. It was “Opening Weekend” when the extended family members drove up from different parts of New England to open the cottages for the summer. The family would patch up any winter damage that had been done to the docks, sweep out bugs, and repair the tennis court. That night as my sister and I sat on the deck with our children, Dad told us his side of the story. He told us that Mom called with the news and he went into one of the bedrooms to cry. He told us that he felt totally helpless and didn’t know what to do. He told us that he came out of the bedroom and asked the family for support. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and parents gathered at our cottage to pray for my sister’s recovery. They sat in a circle and held hands and prayed with all of their might. The next day Erin’s sugar was stabilized and the scare was over. Six months later, I was diagnosed. This is the beginning of our family’s story with diabetes. It doesn’t need vivid details or fabrication to make it memorable. It’s a story none of us will ever forget.

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