A little help from my friends - Roger Sparks - Diabetes

A Little Help From My Friends

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A few thoughts about the importance of friends during my years with diabetes and my recent islet transplant and recovery.


Every serious health situation adds baggage to one’s life.  We Type-1 diabetics need insulin injections, daily blood sugar monitoring, focus on how and what we eat, and we must see an endocrinologist multiple times a year, all aimed at trying to keep our condition under control.  People with other chronic or acute physical conditions have their own unique issues.

The one thing all diabetics have in common is the occasional need for help.  Hypoglycemia – low blood sugar (see Understanding Hypoglycemia) – can rear it’s ugly head at any time and we can get in trouble quickly.  When these episodes happen, our family and friends are sometimes the only reason we get through them. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the actions of more than a few.  As only Joe Cocker could sing (and writhe to)….

Family and Friends

Our immediate family members are usually the ones most affected by our hypoglycemia, with the spouse or partner, and children, having to deal with it on a regular basis.  Children are usually quite resilient, but I’ve seen it drive a pretty big wedge between many couples – it certainly brought difficulties into my marriage.  I’ve also seen it bind some couples more closely together, but, no matter what, it always adds stress and pressures.  Extended family relationships – parents, sisters, brothers – already come with a unique set of conflicts, and some deal with diabetes better than others.

The Unique Role of Friends For This Support

Friends, though, typically play a large part, since most of us spend a lot of time without a family member present.  This is particularly true for people living alone, or for a divorced, or single person.

Friends can provide support in many different ways, and friendship has different meanings for everyone.  It sometimes means being there if your friend is in need, or having them be there for you when you are the one needing help.   As a diabetic, we often find ourselves on the “needing help” side.  Hypoglycemia – low blood sugar -is our constant companion (see Understanding Hypoglycemia), and we sometimes lose control of our bodies.  When these episodes happen, our friends will often be involved.

Rising to the Occasion

How do people react to our low blood sugars, and how should they react?  There is really no answer.  There is no shame in being uncomfortable when your friend goes off the deep end, so the answer is always uniquely personal.

A Related Example

Several years ago one of my personal best friends became ill with pancreatic cancer, and her life was in real danger.  She had recently gone through a divorce, had two young children in high school, was working full-time, and doing everything by herself – then cancer struck.

Her roommate from college (living elsewhere) and I (living on the opposite coast) made a quick decision – the moment she was diagnosed – to get completely involved, and help her deal with her sickness.  Many of her local friends also came forward over the coming months.  During the next year, including six months of chemotherapy, a major operation, and a quite difficult recovery – our friend was never alone, and one of us was at her side each step of the way. Some people brought meals every day, others took care of her kids, but all of us just did whatever was required at the moment it was required.  Seven years later, she is cancer free, her kids have graduated from college, and their lives are full with each other, so this story has a very happy ending.

What We Got Was So Remarkable

What caused some people to respond, and others not?  It’s an impossible and personal question, with a unique answer for each person. But it had a profound affect on everyone who did get involved.  Doing something that so focused our lives so completely on someone else during that year, gave us all back so much more than we ever gave.  Our friend got her life back, but we got the joy of being part of something so much bigger and better than ourselves.

The Roles You Play With A Diabetic Friend

I’d like to think it’s similar if you are friends with a Type-1 diabetic.  Some people just can’t take the occasional drama, and withdraw after the second or third serious episode they’re part of – and who can really blame them.    Others seem to take it more in stride, and just accept it as part of the friendship.

So, if your friend is diabetic, you may get into some challenging situations.  Our low blood sugar episodes may not at first seem life threatening, but they can each become so quickly.  As a friend, you may find yourself having to do things that are somewhat uncomfortable.  I never feel badly with my friends who can’t, or don’t, respond well – again, who can blame them? – but I absolutely cherish the friends who’ve found a way.

Some Personal Examples

In a diabetic life filled with low blood sugar episodes, and friends who responded, I’m reminded of a few:

  • The friend who had to pick me up, literally, along with my golf bag, and carry me into the golf clubhouse after I collapsed in the middle of a rainstorm on the 18th fairway.
  • The friend who recognized that I was getting a low blood sugar while I was in the middle of a presentation at work, and set a small bottle of orange juice beside me while I was talking, without anyone noticing.
  • The friend with whom I play tennis who now always carries a candy bar in his tennis bag, just in case I start showing signs of low blood sugar.
  • The friend in England who I was talking with on the phone from my hotel room, realized I wasn’t sounding right, and rushed over to find me on the floor in a fetal position.
  • Two friends who were expecting me at a party, and, when I didn’t show up, went out searching for me.  They finally found me, unconscious, in my car, in a hotel parking lot.
  • The friend who showed up in Intensive Care, on my first day post transplant, watching me vomit, because he didn’t want me to be alone.
  • The girlfriend from 25 years ago, living on another continent, who found me on the internet, then supported me by phone throughout my transplant, and continues to this day.

And of course the one person who took the lead:

  • My best friend, living on the opposite coast, who’s seen me through more low blood sugar episodes than I can count over the years, without ever a complaint.  He talked me through the decision process during the months leading up to my transplant.  He called me every day while I was in the hospital, plus for the entire month after I got out of the hospital, to make sure I was OK.  He basically provided a rock solid foundation of support and advice when I desperately needed it most.

How Facebook and Twitter Friends Have Added to My Support

In addition to all these personal experiences, I’ve been surrounded by friends over the internet, Facebook, and Twitter who have taken the time to wish me well during my transplant, provide continuing encouragement on a regular basis, and who remain interested in my ongoing results.   We may often disagree strongly about politics – that’s just social media – but when it comes to facing a health issue,  each and every friend has come forward with nothing but unwavering and complete support.

What more can I say?  I know I’m incredibly lucky, and I feel that I wouldn’t be here without each person.  To me they are rock stars, each and every one.