Two years ago my husband was rushed to the hospital because he could not breathe and had severe pain in his chest and back, along with a cold sweat. We assumed it was respiratory in nature, as he had a history of chronic bronchitis, and he had recently suffered what we thought was an asthma attack while hiking in our local mountains.
I followed about fifteen minutes behind the ambulance, and arrived in the Emergency Room rather shocked and winded. He was only thirty-seven at the time, and though he had a few minor health problems, he was in relatively good shape. I quickly made my way through the halls to his side. He looked okay – sitting upright, rather shocked himself but in a good state of mind overall – he has the graceful ability to smile and laugh through challenge. The ER doctor approached me, and explained that my husband had either a collapsed lung or pneumonia. I nodded my head, as if agreeing with his diagnosis, internally trying as hard as I could to remain calm, and not be too frightened.
At the same time, we learned my husband was diabetic. Upon his arrival in the ER they had tested his blood sugar. When the doctor had told him, rather animatedly, “Your blood sugar is over four hundred!” my husband had simply said, “Okay…” Perplexed by his rather nonchalant response, the doctor then asked when he had been diagnosed with diabetes. It was, of course, news to him that he had diabetes. But, compared to the other diagnoses – a collapsed lung or pneumonia, it really didn’t register as being a very big deal.
After a week in the hospital, it became clear that his situation wasn’t improving and he was transferred to a larger hospital that was much better equipped for more complicated cases of pneumonia. There we found out that he had a serious lung infection that had gotten quite out of hand, which had indeed resulted in a collapsed lung. It was a long and exhausting two weeks in the second hospital, as he received strong antibiotics and several procedures – including major surgery – to overcome the illness. During this time we met with diabetes educators. It all seemed like Greek to us – the idea of keeping track not only of blood sugar, but also of carbohydrate intake, new medications, and for the first few months, insulin! I learned as much as I could about his situation, and practiced giving shots, and even – at the coaxing of an educator – gave myself a “shot” (with an empty syringe).
Leaving the hospital, we felt overwhelmed. Not only did he have several months of recovery ahead of him (which entailed a portable antibiotic IV and the healing of a rib that had been broken during surgery), as well as a chance of recurrence of his infection, he also had to learn how to live as a diabetic. This meant a complete assessment of his diet, a cleaning out of the pantry, a quick collection of low-carbohydrate recipes, blood sugar testing five times each day, and regular injections. As he was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, it was not expected he would remain on insulin once his blood sugar was under control, so sudden episodes of hypoglycemia were a concern as well.
Slowly, as his body healed from the surgery, he began walking, and lifting very light free weights. He had lost about thirty pounds in the hospital and soon gained back a healthy amount of weight in muscle. His cholesterol dropped thirty points through diet and exercise alone, and within only three months his A1C went from over 12 – as measured in the hospital – to 5.7. He soon became his endocrinologist’s dream patient, demonstrating that a positive and informed approach to a new discovery of diabetes can have a terrific effect on physical health. Indeed, his lifestyle changes have had a positive effect on the rest of our family as well.
It has now been two years since his diagnosis, and since the illness that could have killed him. He sometimes says it was the best thing that happened to him, because it offered him the motivation to change poor lifestyle habits and get into the shape he is finally in, doing the active things he loves, and eating foods that make him feel great. And although he is certainly not happy to have diabetes, he welcomes its reminder to live well, and to enjoy the truly important things in life.
Originally published in Chicken Soup for the Soul Healthy Living Series: Diabetes, 2006
© Nellie Levine