Wednesday, July 18, 2012


[Not to dwell on diabetes-related sadness, but I haven't been able to shake this feeling and must write about it. I don't know how I'll ever be able to handle these experiences without feeling so much, though I'm not sure that I even want to have that ability.]

I was only a week into my training to become a Pediatric Endocrinologist when the call came from the children's emergency room.
We have an 8 year old little girl with no past medical history who presents with polyuria, polydipsia, weight loss, and an elevated blood sugar.
My heart dropped anchor into my stomach. The diagnosis is irrefutable, but I found myself making excuses for her. Maybe her blood sugar is elevated because she just had a whole carton of juice right before they tested. Maybe this is a temporary, false reaction.
But I knew this wasn't true. I whispered these impossible excuses over and over, and to protect whom? Her? Her family? Myself?
I walked from my office to the emergency room, each step becoming harder. I could feel my eyes welling up. Why? This isn't a death sentence. This is manageable. I've had to do it every day since I was her age, and I'm okay. Right?
And of course, she was the most adorable little girl. Her high blood sugar had been caught early thanks to a family member with diabetes who recognized the symptoms and tested her with a home meter. Her mother and her grandfather were sitting with her on the stark ER stretcher with faces equally stark, though she was still shrouded in naivety and ignorance and thus happy, cheerful.

But her family knew what I was going to tell them before the words could come out of my mouth.
And this relieved me.
I thought the blow of the words would be lessened by their knowledge of the disease. But as I laid out the facts of the matter as gingerly as I knew how, I realized I was wrong.  How could any parent's reaction to this news ever be buffered by anything at all?
I could feel the world shifting under this girl's mother. Her face was a million emotions that swirled into blank stupor.  It was as if her brain, to protect her body from this immense trauma, had simply gone unconscious. I couldn't stop myself from wondering what was going through her head; were they the same thoughts I was having? Was she starting to mourn the end of her daughter's innocent childhood, like I was? Did she even know enough about what was to come to realize the severity of this diagnosis? The impact this will have on every hour of every day, for the rest of her life?

As physicians, we cannot mention these things right off the bat, as it does more harm than good. You present the most simple picture, and the rest unravels over the ensuing hours, days, months, years. It's far too overwhelming in the beginning and would not be understood, anyway.

But I know. I know every tear over needles and lancets, every fit over not wanting to count every damn carbohydrate anymore, every dreaded appointment, every fear. And even though I'm convinced that this disease has shaped me into a better person than I ever would have become otherwise, not a day goes by that I don't wish things could have been different. I know what this family is about to go through and it makes me feel like I'm free-falling into nothing. I can help with their insulin doses and their meal planning, but I cannot cure the disease or the emotions that come barreling with it.

I finish explaining the very basics, and ask them if they have any questions, though I know they are too stunned to ask any right now. But the little girl says,
"Can we get someone to fix this TV? It's broken, and I really want it fixed!"

Yes. And we'll add your pancreas, your mother's heart, and my strength to that list of items that are broken and need fixing.