By Amy Mercer
Author Pat Conroy, John Wollwerth / Shutterstock.com
The literary world lost a giant this spring when acclaimed novelist Pat Conroy passed away from pancreatic cancer. Conroy was celebrated for his emotionally rich stories of complicated family dynamics. The painful story of his upbringing was fictionalized in the New York Times best-seller The Prince of Tides, which was later made into a movie staring Barbara Streisand and Nick Nolte. I read the book soon after I moved to the Low Country in 1993 and was fortunate to meet the author several years later at a chance meeting at the Medical University of South Carolina.
I’d gone to my scheduled appointment at the IDEAL (Intensive Diabetes Education and Awareness Lifestyle) Clinic at MUSC where I’d been a patient for years. That day, I’d already met with my diabetes educator Jane, and was waiting for the doctor to arrive. Suddenly Jane rushed into my room and asked me if I could wait a few more minutes and was I interested in meeting someone very important? Sure I said, having no idea who she was talking about, but curious enough to say yes.
As I continued to sit alone in the shoebox of a hospital room, I tried to imagine who I was about to meet. A renowned endocrinologist? Maybe a local politician who wanted to learn more about diabetes? I had no idea what to expect. Jane returned to my room and told me to follow her down the hallway to another room. She opened the door and there was Pat Conroy and his wife Cassandra King! I was speechless. I had no idea why Pat Conroy was there, but Jane explained during our introduction that Conroy had Type 2 diabetes. I smiled and stuttered something about being a huge fan, and wished Jane had forewarned me so I could have something intelligent to say. I was a struggling writer myself and hated to miss an opportunity to ask a pro for some writerly advice. Conroy was very kind and shook my hand, and then it was time to go. Jane ushered me back to my room and explained that she’d introduced us because she knew I was working on a book about diabetes.
I finished my appointment, walked to the elevator, and Conroy and his wife stepped in beside me. The luck! I smiled, and as the elevator door closed we both let out a big sigh. I don’t remember the specifics of our conversation, but it wasn’t about writing. Instead we commiserated about diabetes. We joked about how we were both sick and tired of eating nuts. “It’s all I eat!” I remember laughing with Conroy who joked about the foods he missed — high-carb, fatty foods that he was no longer allowed to eat. (Aside from his roughly 10 fiction and nonfiction books, he is also the author of The Pat Conroy Cookbook, a book filled with southern staples like Breakfast Shrimp and Grits and Sweet Potato Rolls.)
I walked out of the elevator and waved goodbye and felt that rare sense of connection that comes when you meet someone who has walked in your shoes. He and I were nothing alike, not really, but we shared a frustration over choosing nuts when we might prefer a plate of crab cakes. So now, all these years later, when I reach for a handful of peanuts or almonds or walnuts (as I do on a daily basis), I think of Pat Conroy.
Conroy was known for his generous spirit and he showed it to me that day. He let me into his hospital room where he was probably not feeling his best, and taught me that laughter is important when you’re talking about health. He taught me that people with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are more similar than I’d thought, and that sharing pain is a form of healing.
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Amy Mercer: Amy S. Mercer is a freelance writer living in Charleston, SC, with her husband and three sons. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 14 years old and has written two books about living well with diabetes — The Smart Woman's Guide to Diabetes: Authentic Advice on Everything from Eating to Dating and Motherhood, and The Smart Woman's Guide to Eating Right with Diabetes: What Will Work. (Amy Mercer is not a medical professional.)
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