Hypoglycemia at Work: You’re Scaring the Customers!

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Hypoglycemia at Work: You're Scaring the Customers!

So it was Wednesday night, and I was having a tough time figuring out exactly what I’d write about this week. I’ve been feverishly working on a book that may never see the light of day (by the time this entry is online, I may have a slightly more definitive answer on that), and most of my creative energy seems to be moving in that direction. But just when I thought my inspiration had run dry, life gave me a topic!

On Wednesday evenings I teach piano lessons from the mid-afternoon until 9 PM, with a very short 15-minute break for dinner. It’s not ideal, but it works — I usually just bring a sandwich and a granola bar, and then have a snack when I get home. So there I was, teaching my 5:30 student (my last student before my 15-minute dinner break) when a severe low came along. The first 15 minutes of the lesson were fine, and then about halfway through I simply lost the ability to form a sentence. I became a babbling idiot. Luckily, I knew enough to eat some glucose tablets and monitor, but I didn’t catch it soon enough to salvage the lesson.


My student, who is 15, noticed my total incapacity and started asking me if I was OK. I knew I needed to respond, but I couldn’t form a sentence. I reached for my meter and checked my blood glucose while my student was still at the piano. The reading? Twenty-freakin’-seven! And that was AFTER I’d had the first four glucose tablets. I gobbled up the rest of the glucose tablets, knowing I had to explain to my student what had happened to his previously intelligent, fairly articulate teacher, but I was still unable to put the words together. The lesson ended, and I went out into the waiting area where my student’s father was sitting. My student had another lesson after mine, so he went off to his next lesson while I kneeled by his father and feebly attempted an explanation. As I was speaking, the sugar started to kick in, and over the course of the next five minutes I returned to a reasonably coherent state and explained what happened.

Both my student and his father were very understanding, and we agreed to make next week’s lesson a full hour to make up for this week’s “lost lesson.” But this little episode was still a shocker, both for my student who was witnessing this in the lesson and unsure what to do about it, and for me. It’s rare that diabetes has put me in the position of being obviously disabled. It’s a disease that I can hide reasonably well most of the time. Most of my coworkers don’t know I have it. Most of my students don’t know I have it. But this episode pushed me right out there into the open.

It got me to thinking about the way low blood glucose messes with our jobs. Many of our jobs require high-level cognitive functioning. In all four of my jobs (therapist, music teacher, writer, and musician), I rely on being able to execute a number of high-level cognitive skills. I have to make quick calculations based on multiple, dynamic variables, think on my toes, and respond intelligently to what my clients, students, or fellow musicians are saying to me. As a writer, I need to pay attention to form, tone, and creativity and harness it all into a coherent piece that coalesces into an inviting narrative. All of this is pretty tough to do when I can’t even put two words together to explain to someone that I need sugar!

I remember when I was younger hearing about a push by the ADA to allow people with diabetes to become commercial airline pilots. Frankly, I found myself agreeing with this prohibition. I mean, it’s one thing to waste the last 15 minutes of a piano lesson because I’ve turned into the caveman version of myself thanks to hypoglycemia. I can make up the lesson. It would be quite another to “waste” the last 15 minutes of a flight — those are the 15 minutes when you’re supposed to be landing that multi-ton flying collection of metal! I don’t want my pilot going through a low blood glucose episode, thank you very much!

The dangers of pilots with diabetes aside, I thought I would ask readers to share your experiences of low blood glucose messing with you on the job. I think it’s somewhat inevitable that at some point, diabetes will creep up on us at the wrong time. Perhaps you had a presentation to give to your boss? Maybe you were in the middle of an important sales meeting and forgot how to spell your name? There are probably some scary stories here, and some absolutely hilarious ones, too. So share your stories of turning into a babbling idiot, and tell us how you recovered, explained it, and got back to your usual, brilliant self!

The FDA has approved the combination oral diabetes medication Qtern for use, along with a healthful diet and exercise, in adults with Type 2 diabetes. Bookmark and tune in tomorrow to learn more.

Originally Published February 28, 2013

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