How do I develop empathy with a diabetic?

You live exactly as a diabetic lives for a period of time. This idea was developed at the Diabetic Unit of the Queen Elizabeth II Medical Center in Western Australia, where they believed that the staff who treated diabetics needed to know what their patients' lives were really like. Volunteers for the experiment were required to take injections, using a saline solution instead of insulin, test their urine, eat the diabetic diet including snacks at the proper time, etc. These educators only had to "be diabetic" for a week, but some of them couldn't even last that long. The only one who was really successful at it just gave up her social life entirely and stayed at home catering to her diabetes. That, of course, isn't the way to do it. You're supposed to lead a normal life. After all, that's the goal for diabetics and that's what everyone else is always telling them they can do.

As Dr. Martyn Sulway, the physician in charge of the program put it, "They found out that having diabetes isn't a piece of cake." (Australian pronunciation: "pace of kaike.") Barbara, even though she thought she knew all she needed to about the diabetic life, decided to try the experiment, because she'd been haranguing diabetics for years about what they ought to do yet had no first hand experience. She did it, not for a week but for a month. It was a revelation. (It is significant that the night before the experiment was to start she had a nightmare in which she couldn't find the Dextrostix and a lancet broke off in the Autolet.)

Although she'd always bragged about eating the diabetes diet, she discovered that she hadn't been nearly as meticulous about it as a diabetic needs to be. For example, she hadn't always turned down every dessert. Also she hadn't had to be continually worrying about keeping the inexorable snack on hand for an emergency and this irritated her the most she hadn't had to eat when she wasn't hungry.

She took three injections a day. In order to have a little health hype out of it, she shot vitamin B12 instead of saline solution. Strangely enough the injections weren't as bad as expected. At first they were an interesting novelty, but before long they became just a bore. Occasionally and for no apparent reason the shots hurt, but most of the time they were relatively painless. The classic statement that "it becomes like brushing your teeth" didn't come true for Barbara, though. Since she's developing a periodontal problem, the tooth cleaning routine the dental hygienist has her going through is actually much more time consuming and painful than taking an injection. Because she really doesn't believe in urine tests anymore, she took twice daily blood sugars. (And to her surprise discovered that she may have a twinge of reactive hypoglycemia.)

She even managed to get the flu (not deliberately) and decided that if she really had been a diabetic she would have wound up in the hospital because her diabetes care program fell totally to pieces. This really brought home how important it is for a diabetic to avoid getting the minor diseases that go around every year, and it made her understand something irritating that June once did.

Several years ago in the library Barbara was complaining to a colleague that she thought she was getting a sore throat. June overheard this and, looking anguished, groaned, "Oh, I hope you're not getting a cold." She showed such concern that Barbara thought, "My, what a compassionate friend she is," but June continued, "because if you are, I might catch it, and that would be terrible!"

Barbara also developed a greater tolerance for the foibles and peccadillos of diabetics. She has always been aghast at reports that some teenagers (and even one diabetic celebrity) shoot through their clothes when out in restaurants. But one night during the first week of the experiment she was dining out with friends and suddenly realized halfway through the meal that she'd forgotten to take her "insulin." She didn't know where the restroom was and the restaurant was so crowded that it was hard to walk through. She did know that the "insulin" needed to get in fast so, . . . zap! right through the old corduroy pants and into the leg.

One of the worst features of "having diabetes" Barbara found, was having to keep your mind cluttered with it every minute. As June says, it's as if you're always playing an intricate chess game on top of whatever else you're doing.

The truly worst feature of diabetes the worry about hypoglycemia and long term complications can't be duplicated in a nondiabetic. Still you can learn an amazing amount. (Barbara's injection giving technique improved immeasurably when she was giving shots to herself three times a day. Now when she gives shots to June in restaurants or airplanes, she has a much more delicate touch.) If you do this experiment, your insights will probably turn out to be different from Barbara's and more applicable to your own situation and that of the diabetic you deal with.


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