Knowledge Amid Chaos

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Sonja’s office was a wondrous place. Not much larger than a closet, it was stuffed with a colorful mélange of items both whimsical and useful.

The whimsical? A giant insulin-vial-shaped jar with a plastic pig floating in it that dominated her miniscule wooden desk. At least, I think it was wooden; it was difficult to tell under the weight of miscellany. And why a pig? Perhaps a reminder that before insulin was made in a laboratory, it came from pigs’ pancreas.

The useful? Just about everything, from meters to empty boxes and tins to a collection of meter code keys (just in case you needed a particular one).

Presiding over the…well, the mess that was organized only to Sonja…was a retired military nurse with a pen on a lanyard around her neck, a cap of white-blonde hair, a no-nonsense demeanor, and a heart as warm as Miami in August.

She was my first C.D.E., and she’s the one I’ve measured all others against.

We met about this time 11 years ago, when I made my first visit to an endocrinologist. The practice included educators as well as doctors and, after a lengthy visit with the doc, I was sent off to see Sonja, the nurse educator. At that point, I’d known for nine years that I had diabetes, but knew nothing about diabetes. Sonja was about to change all that.

Somewhere along the way in her military career, she fell into dealing with people who had diabetes, although she didn’t have it herself. However, she’d grown up with diabetes; as she put it, diabetes was “all over” her family. Turns out she was a natural at teaching people about it.

Knowing that people learn in different ways, she used a “tell, show, and reinforce” method of teaching. “I don’t know about you,” she’d say (knowing full well that it pertained to you), “but I have problems with dry feet. I’ve found that the best thing to use is such-and-such.” As she said that, she’d paw through the “miscellany” on the desk, the bookcase, the tops of the file cabinets—wherever—and come up with the product’s container to show you exactly what to look for on the store shelf.

Toward the end of the session, she’d dive into her file cabinets and pull out copies of magazine articles and other written material to support what she’d told you—and maybe a funny story or cartoon to make you smile. I still have a notebook filled with materials I got from Sonja.

You didn’t always need an appointment to talk to Sonja. I recall one day when I couldn’t keep my blood glucose up. After eating my way through the mega-mart proved futile, I called Sonja at her house.

“Where are you?” she demanded. “Look around. Do you see some soft drinks anywhere near you? Good! Go get yourself something with sugar and caffeine in it…and sit down for about half an hour! But first—how’d you remember my number?”

Now retired, she still does some informal educating when her neighbors in Florida have questions about their diabetes. She’s also the designated caretaker of pets with diabetes, giving them their insulin injections and watching over them when their humans are away.

Now her “baby brother,” as she calls him, has diabetes. He lives near me and she’s asked me to help him in some ways.

Coming from Sonja, who played a significant part in my own journey toward understanding and managing my diabetes, that’s a real compliment.

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