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 DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to learn more.

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  • Victoria R. Virgin

    You experience with your low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia) is your fear, where as I am a hyperglycaemic. I fight to try keep the blood sugars down. But that’s not saying that I don’t fear the lows too. One of my fears came to a very real light one day when I was out with my two young boys. We were downtown just finished paying bills and I took them for lunch. I tested myself, took my required insulin and we ate. Unfortunately I didn’t take into account the amount of physicality required to handle those two that day along with the heat of the day. We were waiting for the bus when it started creeping on me, then it hit me like a ram. I sat down then before I know it, I started slumping over. I gave my oldest a few dollars and go into the store and buy a pop and chocolate bar, which he did. By the time he got back to me, I was out. He went and got security from one of the buildings who then knew about what was happening to me by judging the pop drink, the chocolate bar and my tester still in my hand unused, which I was trying to use to see how bad off I really was getting. He called EMT’s which they then took care of my sugar levels and released me to my husbands care who had also been called and who had our kids. So yes, low sugar levels can and are very very scary, especially when your really really not used to them.

  • Grace

    Thank you for this story. I am Type II,and have been told this would never happen to me. But there have been times that I felt pretty lose, or rubbery, as I call it. For me, it’s the difference between staying calm and getting TOO CALM, and I know what you do mean here. Thanks again.

  • Stuart

    They say that a Type II can’t go low. I take two diabetes medications and I’ve been down to 70 three times. I got pretty shakey that last time and gobbled some candy before I got to feeling normal again. Glad I caught it before I went lower and something bad happened. So yes, a Type II on meds can go low.

  • jim snell

    Old wives tales. Do not believe the bad press.
    I am 30+years as type 2 and went through a zone while getting my blood glucose under proper control and hell yes one can go low and on metformin too!

  • Mary Rempp

    I am a T1 diabetic. A few years ago I took a job at Toys R Us over the holidays as a cashier/returns clerk. Management knew I was diabetic and told me no problem. Yet when I went low and asked for assistance, I was told to wait 20 minutes and then someone wold relieve me. I ended up walking away from my register (locked). Caught all kinds of grief from management (who supposedly has a niece with diabetes). No food or drink allowed while working. Even reported incident to corporate, but nothing changed. I do not work or shop there any more!

  • Regina Newlin

    I also used to work a Toys R Us. Not anymore, nor do I shop there! I was a Night Stocker for Christmas season for three years. I didn’t know at the time that I was insulin resistant – I just knew I had to eat several small meals a day, or I didn’t feel well. One night, I came in a 8 PM and worked until 8 AM as usual. I got 1/2 hour off for lunch and 2 breaks for 10 minutes each. I was tired, but not stupid yet. THEN… the Front End manager asked me if I could run a register “just until she called someone in.”

    At 5 PM I locked my register and walked – or rather floated – away. I felt like my head was full of helium, and my feet were not touching the floor! I told the Store Director what had happened, he apologized and sent me home. I grabbed a burger and ate it on the way home. I don’t remember the trip home… or parking at my house. My mom said I looked like the walking dead when I came in. I made it to the hallway before I passed out. My father put me in bed, and I slept for 12 hours.

    Three hours after I got home, the same manager who put me on a register for “a few minutes” called and asked if I was coming in to work or not? My mom said NOT! and hung up on her!

  • Lonnie Pepe

    I am a T2 diabetic. Last summer my husband and I were visiting Banff, Alberta, Canada. I had just returned to our hotel room after leaving early for a picture taking drive by myself. I went into the bathroom and all of a sudden i started shaking and could not stand up. I was able to yell for my husband who brought me a candy bar from the hotel snack basket. My blook sugar was down to 50. It took about 15 minutes before I could leave the bathroom. What a place for a low sugar attack! I am very glad my husband was there.

  • Alice Schwartz

    When my readings get around 100, I start to feel shaky and sometimes ill. Twice this past year I never had the usual symptoms of low blood sugars, but did feel sick to my stomach. Took my reading and they were down around 80. The first time I drank a 1/2 can of pop (pop works best for me) and still felt sick so I finished the rest of the can. Still ill, so took another reading and it had dropped down to 53. Took 2 1/2 cans of pop to bring the reading up to 115. It happened a second time were the reading dropped after drinking 1/2 can of pop, but this time needed only one can to bring the reading up. Has anyone ever had that happen to them?

  • Trudi Peters

    After 53 years as a T1D, I have many episodes with serious lows, too. The “funniest” happened on my 1st day as a middle school special ed. teacher. I had taken the class to lunch, supposedly ate my lunch while going to the office to check my mail box, make sure the boys were following instructions, etc. I sort of slid down the stairs to the exit on the way to my mobile unit. When I passed out on the sidewalk, the boys figured class was over and left me prone in the gravel. Luckily, a fellow T1D teacher assistant found me, had a student get the principal, She brought a soda and called an ambulance (her first experience with a severe low). The boys were given a lesson about diabetes the next day. By the way, after that, I had one student in each class designated to get help from an adult if this ever happened again.
    PS Alice, 1/2 can of soda should bring your sugar up 50 points. give it at least 15 minutes before checking again. It may take longer, but if you take too much your sugar will spike later!

  • Trudi Peters

    Don’t let an employer discriminate against you because of your diabetes. ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommadations for your condition. Since I retired from teaching, I have worked as a “host” in a museum-type setting. I was told that my “lows” caused others to not be able to perform their job when I requested a break to monitor and treat BG lows. The HR dept. corrected the error. The supervisor was reminded how many people would be needed were I to pass out, and as of this writing, all is well.

  • Joanne Bassett

    I’m a Type II diabetic. While at work, a group of us had decided to go out to lunch. Knowing that we’d be walking, I did not take my insulin (NovoLog). At the last minute, we decided to eat in the restaurant in our building since the weather had turned bad. That decision turned out to be a life saver. I ordered my food, then went to a table to wait. My co-workers arrived at the table and one noticed immediately that I didn’t seem right. I’m thankful for her being observant since I was crashing and that was without taking my insulin! I someone managed, how I don’t know, to tell her to run upstairs to get my meter while someone else got me some orange juice. I had dropped to the 47 and I had no reason why. Thankfully between my observant co-workers (the rest caught on quick as to what was happening) and a bottle of juice, I managed to get back to a semblence of normal so I could eat my meal. I still dread to think what would have happened if we’d decided to walk the half mile to the restaurant we had planned to visit.