Don’t Blame It on the Blood Glucose

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I’ve given some thought to whether or not I should share the very awkward two or three minutes I went through yesterday. I wasn’t going to. Then I was. About an hour ago I wasn’t.

But now I am, because time’s beginning to heal my embarrassment, so, really, what the heck, right?

It all began last week about this time when the head of the Family Centered Experience (FCE) program at the University of Michigan Medical School called and asked me if I’d like to participate in a panel for the second-year med students. It was to consist of two doctors who’d been through the program (a surgeon and the chief resident in internal medicine), and one program volunteer (me). My wife Kathryn was also welcome to participate if she wanted (and she wanted; or, rather, she was kind enough to join me).

So the four of us, onstage in a lecture hall, informally discussing the benefits of the FCE program. The hope is that these students, who are ending their stint with the FCE next semester and then begin working with patients next year, hear firsthand about some of the benefits of this thing they’ve been going through that’s not part of their many, many exams.

I was great. We arrived at noon for an early lunch with the other panelists and two of the teachers in the program, and I had no problem articulating my thoughts about what it was like to be a participant in Family Centered Experience. I had this! I mean, insight and wisdom, anecdotes and amusing examples. I was ready.

Then the session begins. Both Kathryn and I had anxiety about going onstage in front of 130 or so students. All of these smart, ambitious, young, white-coated and well-dressed students. The doctor introduced us, we sat down, and from the side of the stage, right off the bat, I was asked to speak a little about my experience with the Family Centered Experience.

I froze. I mean, total deer-in-the-headlights. I looked around and my mind went blank. The rows and rows of students stared at me, waiting. I said, “I’m drawing a blank,” to the doctor. I looked to my wife, who I know was trying to think of a way to bail me out. I pushed the microphone to her and said maybe you can begin. She did. She began, and passed the mic back to me. Still, nothing.

Oh, people, it was horrible. I was sweaty. I wanted to run. My doctor asked if maybe I needed to check my blood glucose? Which I did. It was high. It was about 200 mg/dl. That wasn’t it, but I thought it would be the perfect out: yes. Yes! I am this way because of my illness. I’m sorry, I can’t go on because I’m going low (or I’m too high — at that point any lie to get me out of there).

Except I sucked it up. One of the doctors onstage took the mic and began talking about her experience as a student in FCE. Then she asked me a question and handed me back the mic, and, prompted with something specific to answer (rather than being hit right off with a general “talk about your experience” prompt that left me nothing to grasp at), I was able to settle down and move forward.

For the next 50 minutes or so the session went fine. The Q & A from the students went fine. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad, too, I didn’t run screaming from the room.

Of course I overthought those three minutes of hell for the rest of the day. I looked back and tried to find excuses for why I blanked out the way I did: “I got stuck with the tallest chair and from the start I felt awkward sitting so high! That threw me off my game!” “I didn’t think I’d be beginning the session, having that first question directed at me!” “It’s been years since I’ve spoken in front of an audience — not since I taught in grad school a decade or so ago.”

In the end, however, I’m glad I didn’t blame it on the blood glucose. In fact, the first thing I told the group when I got myself together and begin discussing the FCE (and after apologizing for my moment of weakness) was that my diabetes wasn’t responsible for the anxiety attack.

Don’t expect to see me on any lecture circuit anytime soon!

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