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Fighting Diabetes as a Family

When her husband's chronic illness began to spiral out of control, author Carolyn Starks figured out how to help her children deal with their fear while getting her spouse the care he needed.
Stark Family
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Bob Stefko

We were eagerly waiting in our hotel room for my husband, John, to finish showering so that we could head to the amusement park. My tween daughters started yelling "Hurry up!" over the hiss of running water. But as I finished my cheap shot about him taking longer in the bathroom than a woman, my heart sank.

It suddenly dawned on me that my husband, a type 1 diabetic, might not be taking his time in the shower but languishing there. He could be suffering from low blood sugar, which would render him unaware of where he was, confused and unable to help himself. My pulse was racing, my hands were shaking, my thoughts snowballing. I opened the bathroom door, but he slammed it shut. I heard loud banging, as if he were punching the wall. I opened the door again and found him in a grand mal seizure. That dreadful sound was his head knocking against the tile wall.

"Is Daddy going to die?" my younger daughter, Natalie, cried out.

"Daddy's going to be fine," I answered, way too cheerily.

I embraced him in a bear hug, and then dragged his soaked, flailing body out into the carpeted foyer, where my daughters saw their dad, for the first time, naked and frail. I ran to the lobby for help, leaving my daughters stock-still, staring at their defenseless father.

And so began Cecelia and Natalie's baptism by fire into the new reality of their dad's diabetes.

It's serious enough that it could kill him...but it probably won't...but be on guard just in case he passes out and you have to help him...but we can't tell you when, or if, that will happen again.

After the paramedics left, we sat our daughters down, looked deep into their wet eyes and explained what had happened. We encouraged them to share their feelings. My younger daughter piped up, saying how worried she was about him. His response: "I'm fine." After all, what do you tell your children when their father has a pernicious disease that lets him look—and in fact be—perfectly healthy most of the time, but that can strike him down at any moment? I wanted to counsel them and cancel the outing. But I followed my husband's lead and decided we could skip the emotional roller coaster and ride a real one instead at the amusement park.

My daughters grew up learning about diabetes in uncomplicated doses. They mimicked my conversations with John: "Daddy, is your sugar low?" the younger one would ask, baby voiced, her pudgy hands cupped around his face. Countless times they watched Dad prick his finger to check his blood sugar. And often they perched on the bathroom counter as he pushed the insulin needle into his hip. "No big deal," he had taught them to repeat and believe. However, they never wanted to talk about the disease. I couldn't even get them to say the word "diabetes."

And there was much we kept from them. They didn't know their dad had, on several occasions, suffered blood sugar levels so low that he either couldn't communicate or lost consciousness. Our family doctor wasn't ever too alarmed, because my husband's A1C test—which measures a diabetic's average blood glucose control for the past two to three months—was always very good. We asked about consulting an endocrinologist, a specialist in hormone imbalances like diabetes, but our doctor thought it wasn't necessary. He gave us the name and number of a diabetes educator, but my husband didn't want help from somebody who (a) wasn't a doctor or (b) didn't have the disease.