A Sick Stranger in a Strange Land

What was supposed to be a two-hour layover in Cleveland escalated into a six-day stay in the hospital. I had stumbled out of the plane feeling terrible. I couldn’t breathe, my ribs hurt, and I was profoundly tired. I hadn’t eaten all day, and yet I was still throwing up. I tried walking with my traveling companion to get outside for some fresh air, but instead I collapsed.

The cause of my collapse could be traced to a case of strep throat I had gotten a few days before the trip. I didn’t think it was that serious. I was put on antibiotics, which seemed at first to help. Feeling better, I had decided to return to work, so as not to let my boss down. As soon as I did, I started feeling worse and worse. I couldn’t eat anything, and all I wanted to do was sleep. In retrospect, there was no way I should have boarded that plane, and now here I was, being cared for by paramedics on the airport floor in a strange city.

I was brought to a hospital in Cleveland, where I was hooked up to an IV in one arm and an insulin drip in the other. At first, nobody knew what was wrong with me. Eventually, it was determined that I was suffering from both ketoacidosis (no surprise there) and pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas. With all the flying I was doing, plus the strep throat, my blood sugar went from 233 mg/dL to 700 mg/dL in a matter of three hours.

For the first two days I needed all the medical help I could get; I was miserably sick. After that, I just wanted to go home. I was put on a liquid diet to calm my organs, and my blood sugar was checked every hour. And then on the fifth day, when I was off the insulin drip, I switched to regular food and the nurse didn’t give me any insulin. The doctor from the previous shift had left the order for insulin off the chart. I told my nurse that there must have been some mistake and that I needed insulin, but she refused. Naturally, my blood sugar shot up and the doctor on duty suddenly grew alarmed. I knew exactly what had happened, I just couldn’t do anything about it.

Even despite their errors, or maybe because of them, the doctors grew concerned about sending a person with diabetes back into the world alone. Meanwhile, being confined to their care was slowly driving me mad. It was like my doctor and I were talking two different languages. He assumed I landed in the hospital because I had been a non-compliant diabetic, and he lectured me to do the things that I had been doing for years, like counting carbohydrates and taking insulin. I wanted to talk about the virus that put me in the hospital and how I could prevent something like this from happening again.

In the end, I had to talk my way into being discharged. I went home to Wisconsin as soon as I could, so happy to get back to my doctor. He drew my blood, looked at my paperwork, and we talked. He knew me, and that felt good.

I now know that I should have listened to my body. I was so focused on getting to work that I pushed myself too hard. Young people often feel invincible, and young people with diabetes are no exception, but any illness when you have diabetes should always be taken seriously. That’s a lesson I learned with a CT scan, a lot of IV bags, and six days of Cleveland hospitality.

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Heather Hall just graduated with a degree in writing from Drake University in Iowa. Her work has appeared in Drake Magazine and she has served as editor for Periphery, Drake's literary magazine. Hall was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9.

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