Fatherhood and Diabetes: Meet Patrick
My final installment of the “Dads Who Are Enough…” series is Patrick–special education teacher, father of three and type 1 diabetic since the age of 26. I first stumbled upon Patrick’s Instagram account during my nightly raids of diabetes-related hashtags. Not only was I excited to see a man of color who spoke openly about his health, but I was also drawn by his unabashed commitment to running (a hobby I, too, would assume if only I was more disciplined). As I designed this series, it was my intention to feature the stories of fathers affected by diabetes that included dads of type 1 diabetic children and dads living with type 1 diabetes. Patrick, as a father and type 1 diabetic, graciously accepted my request. Below you’ll find his musings on parenting and diabetes. Enjoy, there are many valuable gems and pertinent reflections in here as well.
Please briefly share your diagnosis story.
I was working summer school as a 26 year-old special education teacher in 2002. It was my second summer in CT, and I was drinking lots of water. It was a really hot summer especially, in my mind, for New England as I’d just moved there in July of 2001. My coworker, a teacher’s assistant assured me that I was just thirsty because it was hot. Therefore, I was only going to the bathroom a lot because I drank so much water.
My sister visited from MS and I took her with me to NYC. During this trip, I could barely contain my urge to urinate. It was so bad that when we returned to my apartment, I dropped my bags in the hallway and ran to the bathroom as I felt myself beginning to lose control. What fed my urge to deny something was wrong was the feedback from everyone that I looked so good.
I’d met a former Yale professor and psychiatrist who’d become a friend. As I walked home, I thought I saw him approaching. I’d recognized him by his gait and body shape, yet his face was a blur. I chalked this incident up to the side effects of inhaling bug spray.
Several incidents like this occurred even during a job interview with a local school district.
When the new school year began, a fellow teacher who often told me I was too concerned with my health urged me to get checked out. Many others complimented me on my weight loss and said that I looked “good”. So I made an appointment to see my primary care physician.
When I was called in to see the doctor, he wasted little time diagnosing me. When checking the weight again for himself, he exclaimed “Wow”! He was quiet as typical of most physicians. My blood sugar was over 500. I didn’t know the expected range, but I knew 560 was high. And I knew the look in the nurse’s eye was not good. She said “he’s showing ketones”. He urged me to go to the emergency room asking if I’d prefer an ambulance. I chose to drive.
During my hospital stay, I learned to inject insulin. I had terrible headaches for which they were reluctant to give me anything (because I’m allergic to NSAIDs and Tylenol could interfere with the readings). I was in shock and perhaps a bit bitter. Despite my poor attitude, one positive that arose psychologically was my determination not to let the disease get the best of me physically. I had a lot of casual medical knowledge and was aware of all of the potential complications. So I decided that I would do whatever I could to avoid them.
When I was released from the hospital, I found the injections to be the easy part. The hard part was the blood sugar checks. I’d had difficulty getting a meter, because the pharmacy I went to couldn’t fill the prescription. This is when I first heard the term “durable medical equipment”. My parents were concerned, but I wasn’t. I was happy to not deal with pricking my finger for a while until it was sorted out. The next day, I found a pharmacy that had DME authorization and got my glucose meter and tests strips. That’s when I came face to face with my frustration (or even anger) about having the disease. I probably attempted from 7-10 times to check my sugar with my Accu-Chek Advantage, which required a much more substantial volume of blood than the meters used today.
I was 26 years old and just beginning my career. I had a future ahead of me that did not include a chronic disease for at least another 25 years. At least, that was the vision that was shattered by coming face to face with type 1 diabetes as a young adult.
Did having diabetes impact how you prepared for the birth of your child(ren)? If so, in what way?
No. I didn’t really plan around diabetes. It affected the routines as far as meals and food choices. But it didn’t affect the plan. It only caused me to worry about how my children would turn out health-wise. I wondered if it would affect them long-term in their health and in response to mine.
How did you decide when and how much to share with your child(ren) about your disease?
My children are young, so it is not clear how much my 2 year-old and 5 year-old understand. It has been an integral part of our lives. It was never hidden. I explain why I have to prick my finger and why I may be giving myself “a shot”. My oldest learned a lot through her mother and was one of the reasons I tightened up my diet. She, at a very young age, asked me if something I was eating had a lot of sugar. I told her it did. She bluntly asked me “so why are you eating it”. I had lost sight of having optimal control of my diabetes, yet I knew how sugary foods disrupted my blood sugar control.
What lessons has diabetes gifted you with that have been useful in your parenting journey?
In my parenting, I’ve learned that children have to be children. So I don’t restrict them at special times. However, I place a premium on their health and make sure they get the best medical care. I also set an example with my diet and sharing with them the exercises I do, especially running. They aspire to do similar things although their diets are not nearly as strict as mine. I also have learned patience and greater perseverance through adversity. The idea of “overcoming” is critical to me in everything including parenting. Adaptation is also a big deal, because it is what my life is about. It is also what parenting is about. Lastly, I think more in terms of preparing them for life and how my choices will affect them. I think in terms of being there for events like weddings, graduations, and even grandchildren. That also manifests in my financial vision and the legacy I plan to leave behind.
As a parent living with diabetes, what is something you wish more people knew or understood about balancing this disease and parenting?
Well, parenting is inherently complex and requires multitasking despite my awareness that multitasking is not the best way to do things. I was at a festival with my kids and was trying to set limits with them as they wanted a lot of things. The people at the ticket stand wanted me to hurry as I was talking to my children. I’d even backed away so as not to appear that I was ready to purchase tickets for the bounce house activities. My oldest daughter wanted to go off with her friend. At this moment, I also realized my blood sugar was low.
So not only is it difficult to manage the children in public. The diabetes acts as if it is an additional child with needs to attend to at the same time.
Also, children’s activities are always in a context that includes edibles that are tempting yet not very good for you. The worst part is that there are rarely alternatives available, and diabetic parents have to eat to. So either you bring the right food with you, leave events early, or fast until you are able to get something safe to eat. I guess there is the option to eat the treats and hope for the best, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do that without pretty negative consequences.
With children you need to be prepared, and like children, diabetes doesn’t take a holiday and requires constant preparedness and awareness.
What advice would you give to a parent raising a child with type 1 diabetes?
Let them know it’s going to be okay. Deal with your own emotional and psychological issues surrounding the disease so that you are not transferring anxieties and despair surrounding the disease. Read up and find genuine hope surrounding their health. Give them examples of diabetics who have accomplished great as well as ordinary things they would aspire to. You are probably their biggest lifeline next to insulin in their ability to live and be well.