You’ve Had an Episode (Part 1)

A few years ago, when I was working full-time as a social worker (instead of being a part-time social worker, part-time music teacher, part-time musician, and weekly blogger… why exactly did I switch?), I had a “diabetic episode.” It was terrifying, and it could have been deadly if not for the quick reactions of some good Samaritans who called 911 and helped get me to the hospital.


I was working as a therapist at a residential treatment facility for adolescents. An RTF, as it’s referred to in social work circles (feel free to use that the next time you’re at a cocktail party with your high-society social work friends), is set up to provide 24-hour mental health treatment for clients who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to continue living at home. It can be a very stressful place, both for the adolescent residents who live there (and usually wish they didn’t), and for the staff who must care for these clients around the clock.

As an RTF therapist, you almost become a surrogate parent for your clients. If a client wants to take a trip off campus, you arrange it with his (or her) schedule, clear it with his insurance, arrange transportation, get parental consent, fill out five forms for the agency, check out the van, and then drive your client wherever it is he needs to go. You report every single behavior to the insurance agency paying for the 6–9 month stay; fill out more paperwork than you could possibly imagine; provide individual, group, and family therapy every week for every client; arrange home visits; provide assessments and comprehensive treatment plans; and a number of other weekly tasks too numerous to go into.

Needless to say, the notion of a “working lunch” is the norm for an RTF therapist. In fact, the notion of “no lunch” is pretty common. And that brings me back to my “diabetic episode.”

I was working one of my typical no-lunch, 10-hour days. I had just conducted a family therapy session, and I had to drive the client’s mother back to the train station. On the whole, this is easier than driving a client, as there’s not much paperwork to be filled out if you’re driving an adult somewhere (adults can take care of themselves in the eyes of managed care).

I knew I was “a little low,” but I had become so accustomed to waiting to take care of myself that I made the incredibly poor decision to drive her the few miles to the train station, and then take care of my blood glucose. To top it off, I had used the last of my glucose tablets already that morning, and had nothing on me to take care of a situation like this. Bad decision count for the day: two.

We hopped into the van, and made it to the train station. By this point, I was having a hard time responding to simple questions, and I think she even asked me before leaving, “are you OK?”. I responded with, “uh huh”, and decided I could make it BACK to the RTF instead of going into the convenience store about 100 feet from the train station. My reason? I had a mountain of paperwork still to do, and I at least wanted to leave work by 7:00. Bad decision count: three.

I turned onto the road leading back to work, but as I drove, panic set in. I wasn’t thinking clearly, I was sweating, and my vision was starting to blur. I drove right past the RTF, knowing I missed it but unable to figure out how to make the turn. I continued down the road, by some miracle avoiding a collision. I saw a large dirt parking lot, and pulled into it. I could see that it was a nursery of some kind, with rows of pine trees, a greenhouse, and a little wooden storefront. I stopped the van, and within 30 seconds all went black.

I woke up in the ambulance, the EMT calmly informing me “you’ve had an low blood sugar episode, we’re on our way to the hospital.” The men working at the nursery had seen me pull into their parking lot and lose consciousness. They came out immediately, saw I was in trouble, and called 911. If these men had not acted as they did, I wouldn’t be writing this blog today. I don’t know their names, their faces, or anything about them, but they saved my life.

I spent the night at the hospital for observation before being cleared to return home. I took the next few days off work, using the time to recover and reflect on what I had gone through. There were a lot of lessons to be learned from the incident; some practical, some philosophical. It was a terrifying, profound experience, one that I will always carry with me. It has impacted how I work, how I think, and how I live day-to-day. Over the next few weeks, I will explore some of the lessons I learned from the experience here, so stay tuned.

I will close with my customary invitation to readers to share your stories with us — what happened, what was it like to go through it, what did you learn? I also invite caregivers, friends, and loved ones who have had their child, spouse, or friend go through something like this. An event like this has an impact on everyone involved, and your voices are just as important.

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  • Aaron Capp

    This is a great lesson that your readers should know. I can’t wait for part 2.

  • Allison McCook

    Very interesting and informative. Thank you for sharing. My mother is currently in the hospital for yet another low blood sugar episode (reading of 29)…the fourth in 3 weeks requiring an ambulance. Her extreme eating habits and a shoulder surgery together have made for a deadly combination. We don’t know what to say to her honestly to get her to realize what a serious problem this is and that its her responsibility to take care of herself. We are so frustrated.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you, I think I will go have lunch now…lol

  • Scott Coulter


    That sounds like a tough situation. One could write a book on dealing with Diabetes and family, so I can only hazard an educated guess, but it sounds like your mother is incredibly overwhelmed, and dealing with that by ignoring all of her problems. It sounds like a couple things might help, depending on her personality.

    If she’s getting a little TOO comfortable being constantly taken care of, she might need to hear that you guys aren’t gonna keep bailing her out like this. Easier said than done, I know. The key would be to lay it out matter-of-factly, with no anger, not much emotion, just plain, simple fact. Let her know that if she keeps choosing to land herself in the hospital for a few cookies, she can stop expecting visitors. And then, if she does land in the hospital, don’t visit. If she’s in physical danger, don’t ignore it, of course. But don’t offer emotional support for behavior that is hurtful not only to your mother, but to all of you.

    And that brings me to the second thing to say to her: tell her, show her, exactly how much hurt this is causing you and the rest of her family. Stage an intervention where she has to hear exactly how much fear, worry, anxiety, anger, and hurt she’s really causing by putting all of you through this over and over just so she can eat what she wants.

    And finally, IF she gets serious about shifting what she’s doing, help her take on her challenges one step at a time. Don’t try to change her whole diet overnight, but help her see which foods are REALLY giving her a hard time and scale those back. Help her understand what her blood sugar readings mean and how she should address them. If she’s really so overwhelmed that she’s just decided to give up, she’ll have to break things down into smaller, more manageable tasks or she’ll just collapse into learned helplessness again.

    I hope some of that might be helpful. Not having met your mother or family, it’s a bit of a shot in the dark. But if it rings true, see if setting firm limits and having an intervention might help the situation.

    Good luck!