I’ve always loved flying. When I was a little kid, it was near the top of my list of “things I’ll do when I’m a grown-up.” Like most childhood ambitions, it dropped off my list somewhere between childhood and adulthood. But I still love flying. I’m 35 and I still jump for the window seat. I still love takeoff, landing, and the whole process. It’s amazing to me that we can DO that, really, and while I’ve never bothered to learn much about the real thing (nor do I have the money to run off and get flight lessons on the weekends), the flight sim on my computer is one of my favorite downtime activities.
Having Type 1 diabetes means the option of becoming a commercial pilot was never available to me. And I know that some feel very strongly about this — I remember hearing about advocacy organizations whose sole mission was to fight for the privilege of allowing people with diabetes to be commercial airline pilots. But as much as I’m a proud Diabetian, I wasn’t ever able to really get on board with that message. And here’s why:
I teach music and perform for a living. And I’ve had a couple scary moments in the middle of lessons when my blood sugar dropped and I found myself really out of it, much to the concern of my student. I actually wrote a blog entry about one of those occasions. Those moments are scary, and on one occasion my severe low blood sugar led to a wasted half-hour lesson for one of my students (to whom I made it up the following week).
As much as those low blood sugars threw a wrench in the system on those days, it wasn’t dangerous. My blood sugar didn’t have any life-and-death consequence for anyone else in the room. But what if one of those lows hit a pilot on “final approach” with a commercial jet full of people? That would be a whole other story. And that’s why I never really had a problem with airlines telling me I wasn’t eligible to be a pilot. As much as it sucks to have that limitation (again, not that I would have become a pilot, anyway — it’s more about the principle of the thing), I understand it and it makes sense. And so I wasn’t able to get on board with any of the groups advocating for commercial aviation privileges.
OK, so if you don’t want to be a pilot…
Why am I bringing this up if I never really wanted to go become a pilot? I’m bringing it up because it’s interesting to think about the kinds of limits diabetes puts on us. As far as chronic diseases go, diabetes is usually pretty manageable. We don’t have mobility limits or cognitive limits. We just have to monitor ourselves more carefully than most other people do. But we do have certain limits, both external and internal, that we have to live with as Diabetians.
Those low blood sugar episodes certainly count as limits. I’m completely dependent on having sugar available at all times. I’m completely dependent on having access to insulin on a daily basis. I’m completely dependent on the whole infrastructure that gets my insulin to me. If my blood sugar is too low, I may have to sit in my car for a while until it comes back up and I can safely drive home. I can’t drink the way some of my friends might — because I have to stay in control of my faculties at all times. I don’t have the luxury of letting myself get “foggy.”
But these limits aren’t all bad. Even the limits I’ve been annoyed with at times over the years, like the fact that I’m totally dependent on technology and the infrastructure that brings me my insulin, have silver linings. I might be dependent in certain ways, but because of it I have an appreciation for those areas of my life where I really AM self-sufficient. I might be limited by my moments of hypoglycemic “fog,” but years and years of constantly monitoring myself for signs of low blood sugar have led to an incredibly well-develop barometer for my own mind.
Our limits don’t have to define us, and they won’t if we work with them skillfully. I might not agree with their stance, but I appreciate the fact that the people who want to the right to fly commercially are standing up and trying to make it work. I still might not want a fellow Diabetian in the cockpit of my next flight, but I like the attitude. Our limits don’t define our path, diabetes or no diabetes.