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A Life of Control: Stories of Living with Diabetes

A Life of Control: Stories of Living with Diabetes

by Alan L. Graber

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Diabetes happens in a life that already has a story. This book, composed of nearly forty personal narratives, based on taped interviews, about the lives of actual patients with diabetes, draws upon the collective experience of an endocrinologist and two nurse practitioners who worked together for twenty-five years.

The people who describe their experiences with


Diabetes happens in a life that already has a story. This book, composed of nearly forty personal narratives, based on taped interviews, about the lives of actual patients with diabetes, draws upon the collective experience of an endocrinologist and two nurse practitioners who worked together for twenty-five years.

The people who describe their experiences with diabetes range from teenagers to physicians, immigrants, athletes, pregnant women, accountants, a prisoner, and a dairy farmer. They speak of the variety of ways they handle monitoring, diet, insurance coverage, sports, and fashion. Some talk of how they manage to drive trucks for a living or, for recreation, fly airplanes or go spelunking. Many speak frankly of their anxieties and frustrations.

The authors acknowledge that both the patient and clinician have a story about their relationship, and describe the richness and tension in their interaction. Families, too, are sources of both support and conflict. These relationships are acknowledged in the organization of the book, which is divided into sections defined by the main elements of diabetes control: patient self-determination, the role of the family, the social situation, and the patient-clinician encounter.

The book provides a wealth of information about diabetes, including material on prevention, complications, and new technology, as well as a superb glossary, but it is not intended as a textbook on diabetes or as a self-care manual for patients. Rather the book provides a textured account of the health professional's view of diabetes control and the perspective of the patient whose life is complicated by diabetes.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Medical practitioners and co-workers Graber, Brown, and Wolff present an inspiring compilation. Stories by and about patients meld with comments from the care team, offering specifics about diabetes and treatment; readers will learn facts about gestational diabetes, how stress impacts glucose levels, and more. From a patient's letter about wishing for a day off from diabetes, to stories about patients dealing with the possibility of diabetes-induced birth defects, or treating the condition in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the authors humanize the epidemic while also setting an example for empathy in the patient-practitioner relationship. Readers will find the many faces of diabetes, as well as the dedication required to maintain a healthy diabetic life, to be astonishing. The medical team has seen substantial improvement in diabetes treatment protocols over the years; current techniques include insulin pumps, continuous monitoring, and service dogs that can diagnose blood sugar levels by smell. The authors conclude with a summary of screening and treatment recommendations. A Life of Control will greatly interest not only those with Type I or Type II Diabetes, but their family members, physicians, and clinicians. (Nov.)
Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Ronald N. Cohen, MD (University of Chicago Medical Center)
Description: This is a series of personal narratives of patients living with diabetes, speaking of their experiences and goals, their successes and frustrations.
Purpose: As the authors note, "the patient views himself as a person whose life is complicated by diabetes, not as a professional patient. The health professional's view of diabetes control is only a window into the many dimensions of a life with diabetes." As they explain, the purpose of this book is "to situate the diabetes experience within patients' live and the meaning of those lives," an extremely worthy objective.
Audience: Although it is written primarily for patients with diabetes, the book also would be helpful for internists, endocrinologists, and any physicians who take care of patients with diabetes.
Features: Each patient narrative illustrates an important point (or points). After each narrative, the authors provide a brief commentary, which is very helpful. I found the narratives to be interesting and insightful, and helpful to me as an endocrinologist.
Assessment: This is a nice book that I think will be very interesting for anyone with diabetes, as well as for their physicians. The narratives themselves are fascinating, but the book is more than the sum of its parts. It provides great insight into diabetes, and how diabetes fits into the lives of those who deal with it on a daily basis.
From the Publisher

"A Life of Control will greatly interest not only those with Type I or Type II Diabetes, but their family members, physicians, and clinicians."
--Publishers Weekly

Named a "Best Consumer Health Book of 2010" by Library Journal

"..if you or someone you know is struggling to find camaraderie during a particularly troubling time with their diabetes, this might be a perfect gift."

"One of the largest challenges people living with diabetes face is taking care of themselves on a day-to-day basis, which means assuming responsibility that, in many other cases, is left up to the doctor. A Life of Control depicts 40 years of diabetic patients’ stories through the narration of the doctor and nurse practitioners who collected them, acknowledging the often complicated relationship between people living with diabetes and their doctors. A cleverly organized group of stories, which reveals the difficulties, both physical and emotional, that come along with diabetes, but leaves the reader feeling confident about taking control."
--Steven Edelman, MD, Founder and Director, Taking Control of Your Diabetes, Del Mar, California

"Dr. Graber and his team share a collection of stories that not only educate but motivate. As a healthcare professional with diabetes I have learned most of the really important lessons about control from my patients. These stories are very engaging and you will find this book both enlightening and inspirational."
--Virginia Valentine, certified diabetes educator; co-author of Diabetes Type 2 and What to Do (1994 & 2000) and Diabetes--The New Type 2 (2008); former member of board of directors of American Diabetes Association

"This is a unique and well written volume describing personal experiences with diabetes of those who have it, their families and their providers of medical care. It yields valuable insights that will help with the issues for everyone who has to deal with this challenging disease."
--Mayer Davidson, MD, Director of the Clinical Center of Research Excellence at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, past president of the American Diabetes Association, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Diabetes

"With health care reform on the horizon and the cost of managing chronic disease impacting our economy, the doctor-patient relationship is often quantified in merely economic terms. Through personal stories about living with diabetes, Graber's patients show 'control' is more than insulin, blood sugar testing, and managing one's diet, and a successful doctor-patient relationship is a lot more than what's reflected by billing procedure codes."
--Kim Emmons-Benjet, mother of a child with Type 1 diabetes and blogger for Healthcentral.com

"In these touching stories, you will hear real-life tales that are funny, sad, life-affirming, aggravating and more. Read this and realize that you are not alone."
--William H. Polonsky, PhD, CDE

Library Journal
Many books describe the physical and psychological effects of diabetes. Few allow those with the disease to share their stories in an empathetic and educational fashion. Endocrinologist Graber's interviews with almost 40 patients highlight the challenges, failures, successes, and coping mechanisms that have helped or hindered diabetic control. Part 1 emphasizes that the patient's role is far more important than the clinician's; those who can accept and maintain responsibility for self-management are generally healthier and have a greater sense of control. Part 2 illustrates the effects of diabetes on the family and the impact the family can have on the patient's controlling the disease. Part 3 describes how the social and physical environment of work, school, and play can affect how people manage their health. The fourth and final part addresses the role of the clinician/patient relationship in promoting trust and influencing positive lifestyle changes. VERDICT Readers can find many lessons, gently provided, from those who are experiencing similar challenges. Recommended for consumer health collections and for diabetes patients and their families.—Janet Schneider, James A. Haley Veterans Hosp., Tampa

Product Details

Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Life of Control

Stories of Living with Diabetes

By Alan L. Graber, Anne W. Brown, Kathleen Wolff

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2010 Alan L. Graber, Anne W. Brown, and Kathleen Wolff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1734-0


To Hell with Diabetes

Nikki developed diabetes at age fifteen. She related, "It was OK at first, but as I got older and started going out, I didn't want to test my blood sugar or take insulin—it was inconvenient. I was the only teenager I knew who had diabetes. I felt fine physically, but I cried a lot. Why did it happen to me? I wasn't depressed, I was angry. If I could have given it to someone, I would have."

In her high school courses, she made all As and Bs. Her parents were both professionals in the field of education, and she stated, "They didn't want to see a C. I did my homework. I was a cheerleader for two years. I had the lead female part in the senior play. Teenagers rebel about everything, but I wasn't rebellious. Sometimes I just wanted to give up, forget about school, forget about going out, forget about diabetes." And that's exactly what she did.

Between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, throughout high school and the first two years of college, she was hospitalized at least once a year for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). The major acute complication of type 1 diabetes, DKA is characterized by vomiting, dehydration, and eventually coma and death. Sometimes it is the initial manifestation of type 1 diabetes, occurring before the patient or family realizes that diabetes is present. In individuals with established diabetes, an infection or other acute illness can precipitate DKA, but when it occurs repeatedly, omission of insulin is usually the cause.

Why would an intelligent young woman repeatedly quit taking her insulin injections, knowing that she would end up in the hospital and might even die? We held a medical conference to discuss our difficulties in caring for patients like Nikki, most of whom were young women. The doctors and nurses who attended the conference concluded that in most cases, the patients must have intentionally omitted their insulin injections, although few admitted it. One attendee quoted a patient who had acknowledged, "I didn't take my insulin shots after arguments with my mother, my boyfriend, and a girl at work. I knew I would get sick and start vomiting in a few hours, and even if I lost consciousness, someone would take me to the emergency room, and they'd put me in the hospital." The patient understood her disease perfectly and knew that only she had control over her insulin injections. She knew that she could allow the development of DKA whenever she chose to, and that no hospital could refuse to treat a readily curable acute medical emergency.

When her mother had suggested that she see a psychologist, Nikki had replied, "If you make me go, I'll just sit there and not say anything." Then, at age twenty-one, she didn't take her insulin for a month. She told me that she had said to herself, To hell with diabetes. I was free of insulin, free of sticking my finger, free of anything negative from diabetes. I was determined that nothing would happen to me." She stated that she had had the usual symptoms of diabetes—thirst, drinking lots of water, tiredness, and the loss of thirty-five pounds—but she had continued to function and thought her body had adjusted to high blood sugar.

Finally, one day she got sick at her boyfriend's house; she couldn't get her breath and felt she was going to pass out. "I told him to call my dad, not my mom. Momma would give it to me straight, and I didn't want to hear anything straight. I wanted it sugarcoated." By the time she was admitted to the hospital with severe DKA, she was in a coma.

Every medical student knows that if DKA is not treated, death can occur. Since the condition results from insulin deficiency, the basis of treatment is relatively straightforward: provide insulin and restore the several liters of fluid that have been lost. During the previous generation of medical students, a popular professor at Vanderbilt had a dramatic way of teaching his first-year physiology students about DKA. He would divide the class into teams of four students and issue each team a laboratory rat. Then he would instruct the students to surgically remove the pancreas from their rat. Without a pancreas, the rat would lack insulin, developing DKA and dying within a day or so unless it received treatment. He taught the students to monitor the level of sugar and other chemicals in blood drawn from the rat's tail. The students would deliver insulin and fluids to the rat, trying to cure the DKA and keep the rat alive. This was the students' first opportunity to stay up all night at the bedside and try to save a life. Despite their best efforts, some of the rats died, but those teams of students who understood the abnormal physiology and its treatment succeeded in keeping their rat alive for several days, finally ending the process because they were exhausted. They could boast to their classmates that they were destined to be great rat doctors.

Nikki received excellent medical treatment in the hospital, and the DKA resolved, though she remained in a coma for twenty hours. When she finally regained consciousness, she was frightened. "The coma was something the doctors had warned me about. If I went into a coma again, it might not be for twenty hours, it might be for twenty days. I thought it was time for me to straighten up."

Nikki was referred to a clinical psychologist. This time she said, "OK, I'll go, but if I don't get anything out of it, I'm not going back."

But the psychologist was extremely helpful. "When they brought the psychologist in, I got vibes from her that she understood—that she was compassionate and willing to help. I could sense she knew what she was doing and she would do anything in her power to get me to understand that diabetes was part of me and wasn't going away. I could feel a lot of things being lifted from me. It was easier talking to someone who didn't know me; it was easier for me to get everything off my shoulders without worrying about her feelings being hurt or my feelings being hurt from what she would say back to me. She was a confidence builder."

Nikki appreciated the fact that the psychologist understood diabetes but never told her what she had to do. She related, "The psychologist asked how I thought my parents would cope with losing me. From then on, I took every insulin shot. I did better than I ever had. I thought about how my loss would affect other people. I knew my mom would go ballistic. I didn't want to cause my mom more pain than she had already felt. When the psychologist gave me the chance to step out of my shoes and into someone else's, that was my first rude awakening."

When I interviewed Nikki for this book, she was a twenty-six-year-old grad student and five years past her last hospitalization. I asked her pointedly, "When you omitted insulin, what was the underlying reason? Were you trying to harm yourself? Were you trying to get attention?"

She replied, "I wasn't trying to kill myself, and I wasn't trying to get anybody's attention. I knew the consequences. I was just burnt out from having diabetes. I didn't care. I hated testing my blood sugar, and I still do. It only takes five seconds, and it doesn't actually hurt. I honestly don't know what it is about that sticking the finger thing, but I just hate it with a passion."

I pressed further: "Didn't it bother you going into the hospital every year?" I was appalled by her answer: "It only bothered me because I missed my extracurricular activities while I was in the hospital. My friends were doing things that I didn't want to miss, like going to football games or pep rallies. The doctors told me that it could be worse the next time, but I thought they were just using a scare tactic. Every time it was the same: they would give me IVs and insulin, I'd go home in a few days, and I would start taking my insulin again. Making up all that work from school didn't bother me."


I Threw Away the sugar Bowl

Four days after she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Peggy was referred by her primary care physician to a diabetes nurse practitioner. "Kathleen calmed me down that first day," Peggy recounted. "She gave me hope, she gave me knowledge, she knew what she was doing. She reached over and touched me and said, 'You can control this, and if you do, there's a good chance you won't have to go on insulin.' The thing that scared me was going on insulin. It wasn't the fear of shots. I didn't want to become dependent on anything again. I had had acute respiratory distress syndrome [ARDS] eleven years ago and had been dependent on oxygen for two years. I made up my mind that day to control the blood sugar, whatever it took."

Kathleen remembers that "Peggy's blood sugar had been extremely high. In a different setting, with a different clinician, insulin would have been prescribed, but she had already begun to change her eating habits, she had faithfully taken the medication prescribed by her primary care doctor, and her blood sugar had already decreased. I made the decision to give her the chance to control her blood sugar without insulin injections, although I was not convinced that she could succeed. I insisted that she contact me daily to report her blood sugar and general progress."

Peggy said:

I went home, threw away the sugar bowl, and replaced it with Splenda. Then I cleaned out the refrigerator and the cabinets and never looked back. I had no control when I had ARDS, but I could breathe now. I felt I could have some control over what I did with diabetes. It would take a major life change to do it, and this was it.

I didn't know what I could eat that night; I had to get a plan. I got on the Internet and looked up diets for diabetes. Then I drove to the bookstore and got books about diets for diabetes. I called a friend with diabetes. I got through the first few days by just going from one meal to another. At 289 pounds, I knew that I had caused diabetes by being overweight. My sleep apnea, arthritis, and other health problems could be improved with weight loss. Once, in grad school, I had lost ninety pounds and kept it off about five years. I woke up one day and had gained it all back. Now, losing weight wasn't my number one goal, it was controlling my blood sugar.

She learned quickly. She limited her carbohydrate intake to forty-five grams per meal. Peggy supplied the details:

For the first few months, it took me hours to grocery shop. Nothing went into my grocery cart or my mouth that wasn't in that little book of carbohydrates. I bought scales and measuring cups. I bought smaller plates and bowls. Before diabetes, I would start answering phone calls as part of my job as soon as I got up; then I would be starving and eat a big lunch. Now I plan my meals. I eat three meals a day including a good breakfast; turkey bacon is my favorite. I didn't dare go to a restaurant for three months. I didn't trust myself. I didn't eat any pasta whatsoever; now pasta is sometimes a side dish, never a main meal. I eat lots of salads. I bought a new car with a cooler between the seats, and when I travel on business, I put snacks and lunch in the cooler. I don't look at it as a diet; it is what I have to do to control my blood sugar. It was very hard in the beginning, but now it's second nature.

During the first month after the diagnosis of diabetes, Peggy lost six pounds, and another six pounds the second month. She noted that the improvement in her blood sugar levels occurred as soon as she modified her diet—much more quickly than the loss of weight. By four months, she had lost twenty-five pounds. Her A1c had fallen to 5.1 percent, within the normal range. The liver enzymes indicating excess fat in her liver normalized. After a year, she had lost seventy pounds and had been able to stop her diabetes pills. "Coming off oral medicines meant a lot to me; it meant I didn't need anything external to control diabetes. I know if I don't watch my diet, those blood sugars will go back up, so I don't have a choice."

Peggy described how she dealt with some of her trials. "Thanksgiving came six months after my diagnosis of diabetes. I panicked. What was I going to do when the family got together? My family has great recipes. We sit down and talk to one another with food. I decided to eat one tablespoonful of everything. For most things, that was all I really wanted, but when the pies came out, it was hard. I got the thinnest sliver of both my mom's pecan pie and my grandmother's pumpkin pie. The next day I went back to my regular eating, and everything was OK. Next I worried about Christmas, but I used the same tactics. This Easter we didn't have the traditional meal that we have always had. We changed it. It was almost like betraying my grandmother. We had a spiral-baked ham, cut thinner than the hams we used to bake, and we had fresh green beans instead of baked beans. We did have a bowl of potato salad, but I took only one tablespoon."

I inquired of Peggy what accounted for her success. She said, "I was raised with the attitude that you do whatever you have to do. My mother was a single mom who raised three girls. She always worked two or three jobs. I watched her do the impossible. Nothing ever came easily for her or for me, and I had to work for everything. When I looked at diabetes, I felt I had two choices. I could be a diabetic on insulin, or I could be a diabetic who controlled it."

I asked Peggy if she sets goals for herself. "I do," she replied, "but I don't want to box myself in. I would like to lose another thirty-five pounds, but I won't commit to any specific weight goals. It would have been too overwhelming to aim to lose seventy pounds. I set small goals. If I eat the way I should to control my blood sugar, I'll probably continue to lose some weight."

As we completed the interview, Peggy added with a smile, "One of my goals is to control diabetes so I won't end up in your office. Nothing personal."


Running for My Life

Kathleen has known Dottie as a friend for twenty-five years and even played the harp at her wedding. She recalls her shock when she walked into the treatment room in her role as a nurse practitioner and saw Dottie receiving intravenous fluids. "People were hovering over her," Kathleen relates. "When I looked at her, she was withered and thin, thin, thin. She looked worn and exhausted. It was hard to reconcile, because I had not seen the progression from powerfully fit to gaunt. I had to adjust in a split second, for I didn't want her to see me gasp, but that's what I did inside. I wasn't worried about her safety at that moment. I knew that as soon as she got IV fluids and insulin in her body, she'd be on her way back to 100 percent. She had so much experience taking on challenges, things that would intimidate other people. She had worked as a nurse in the emergency room, in the intensive care unit, and as a life flight nurse in a helicopter. I had to process the fact that my friend Dottie—this vibrant, strong, athletic, adventuresome woman—now suddenly had type 1 diabetes."

Dottie recalls, "I was training for my first marathon, and it just wasn't happening for me. I had felt tired for six months, lethargic all the time, even worse when exercising. During a sixteen-mile training run, I'd have to stop and walk after three or four miles. I had always done well on the hills, but my running buddies were having to slow down for me. It just didn't add up. I attributed it to stress. Within the past six months, there had been a deluge of stress. First my mother-in-law had died, then two weeks later my mother died. A week after that, my sister was found to have untreatable cancer. I was working fifty to sixty hours a week in the operating room training to be a nurse anesthetist. I didn't have time to figure it out. I just kept running. Running was supposed to make it better, but it didn't."


Excerpted from A Life of Control by Alan L. Graber, Anne W. Brown, Kathleen Wolff. Copyright © 2010 Alan L. Graber, Anne W. Brown, and Kathleen Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan L. Graber is an endocrinologist; Anne W. Brown and Kathleen Wolff are certified diabetes nurse practitioners. In 1986, while in private practice, the authors organized one of the first Outpatient Diabetes Education Programs in the country recognized by the American Diabetes Association. They later worked together for many years at the Vanderbilt Eskind Diabetes Center.

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