To My Local Newspaper

This post is in response to a pair of diabetes-focused stories in the weekend edition of the Johnson County Daily Journal, which is my hometown newspaper here in Central Indiana and a county paper that I think surpasses the Indy Star on most levels. For disclosure, I'd worked as a reporter at this paper more than five years ago and it's what brought us to Indiana in the first place. The editor I'm writing to is also my former boss, and likely as a result of that past employment this letter will never be published there. So I'm posting it here. Since the Journal locks down its content to only subscribers and I'm not a fan of that practice, I have opted to not post the two stories in their entirety to respect that policy. But I'm including enough to give everyone a feel for how the stories were written.
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Dear Local Newspaper Editor:
The Daily Journal in Johnson County, Ind.

On Saturday, you ran a story with the headline, "A New Day: Pancreas transplant eliminates Greenwood woman's diabetes." The story centered on a longtime Type 1 diabetic who, after Living With Diabetes for 40 years, underwent a pancreas transplant and was effectively cured of the daily D-routine as she'd known it. More than a year later, she's doing great and feels "normal." An accompanying story details the risks and bigger picture about these pancreas transplants, and how Indiana University Hospital is one of the leading and highest-volume locations for these procedures nationwide.

Being a Type 1 diabetic for almost 27 years since the age of 5, these stories hit home for me. I greatly appreciate the stories and found them to be very interesting reads on a transplant process I’ve wondered a lot about. Overall, I found these to be good articles that rise above most of the others I've seen published locally and nationally on the subject of diabetes. You captured the basics of Life With Diabetes, from the experience of having a Low blood sugar to the daily routine of finger sticks, insulin pump sets, and Continuous Glucose Monitor sensors. The secondary story also does a great job breaking down the differences between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, more than is typically seen in other media and most reporting on the topic. Honestly, I can’t say thank you enough for that.

Two concerns stuck out in my mind after reading the main story, though.

One concern with the story is that it embodies a common misconception that diabetics can't eat anything with sugar - the "You Can't Eat That" mentality. The woman in story talked about how she historically hasn't been able to eat sugar. Reese's Pieces Peanut Butter Cups, or barbecue ribs and baked beans. Actually, we CAN eat any of those things and more - we just have to accurately calculate the carbs contained in any food and dose insulin accordingly. But, even with that D-Math and ability to eat something, it doesn't mean some choose to and many veteran diabetics still live off the "avoid sugar" mentality as much as possible. Many in the medical profession still voice this, as well. That is likely the case with this woman profiled. The public then gets the idea that diabetics shouldn't eat sugar or cookies, and we regular get asked those questions as children's birthday parties, office pitch-ins, holiday feasts, and so on. It's frustrating, but not the end of the world. This isn't necessarily an "inaccuracy," just something that fuels an old-school myth that really isn't the case in this modern world of diabetes management.

The story did have an inaccuracy. While most of the basics were accurate, I found one line that unfortunately fell short of being correct: "If her (blood sugar) levels were too low, she was injected with a dose of insulin."

No, actually that's not correct. It would be correct if describing someone with a high BG - that's when you need insulin to lower your levels. But when a Person With Diabetes has a Low blood sugar, that means they already have too much insulin in their system and must get sugar to raise up their BG levels. Injecting more insulin could be dangerous, potentially even deadly.

Sure, us diabetics know this basic and won't get confused about it. To the non-diabetic, this error may not be a big deal. But it is.

Recently, the mother of a 7-year-old Child With Diabetes recently told me that a school teacher tried to make her daughter take insulin after testing for a Low one day. The teacher was confident that her knowledge was correct, that the girl needed more insulin. My understanding is the school didn't have its own full-time nurse there, and so it was up to the teacher to supervise until the nurse could advise. For whatever reason, that response was delayed and so the teacher was trying to convince the child too take insulin. Because that's what she thought. If it wasn't for the resilience of this little girl who knew better, this no-nurse situation could have ended badly.

Personally, I've had people in my life who have said this same thing - whether it be colleagues at past jobs, or acquaintances who've observed my Lows at times and tried to help.

Coupled with the first misconception, they might think it's because I ate a cookie one day and then went Low, and didn't take my insulin. And so I'm going to lose a leg, go blind, or have kidney failure, or pass out and die.

I worry that the inaccuracy in your story could spread that misunderstanding in the public, and it could reinforce the lack of knowledge out in the public. Kids and adults with diabetes could be put in danger by these inaccuracies, and that's a concern.

Which is why I've written this letter to you today.

Again, while I appreciate the publicity on this important pancreas transplant issue and even general Life With Diabetes, I do want to make sure we're getting the right message out to readers. I'd welcome the chance to keep in touch on these diabetes-related topics in the future, and help as much as I'm able to. Thank you.


Renata said…
Good post Michael. I actually had a friend who was at clinic and it's a teaching clinic. And the "doctor" when your blood sugar is low, how many units of insulin do you take. What's your ratio?" Needless to say...that did not go over well. Thank God it was an experienced family and not a new one. Can you imagine?
Deanna said…
I hope they consider printing your letter.. or at the very least correct their misinterpretations. Great letter Michael.
This was a great article! Very well written and it was very professional as well! THANKS for posting it and I hope they will print it!!
Unknown said…
Great reply, Michael! I really hope they consider publishing it.
Jen said…
This is a great letter Michael. Let us know if they post in the paper.
Anonymous said…
When my son was diagnosed last year, he had a headache while in the hospital. The nurse told me we would check his sugar and if he was low, she would give him insulin. Thank GOD he was not low. I didn't know enough at the time to realize how wrong she was. She could have killed him.
I hope your post is read by millions of people and they can learn from it. I hate to feel my child is in danger from the general public if he has a low.
Meri said…
Great letter Michael. I too have had teachers who confuse what lows and highs are. Years ago, when my now 13 year old son was in 3rd grade, his teacher thought the answer to both highs and lows were to eat something. I'm glad my guy knew better, but there is a big crowd of people who don't understand what is what.

I wish the paper would run this!
FP said…
I hope they print your letter, or at least their own version of your concerns. I had a boss once that cut my hours because she didn't think I was treating my diabetes properly. Why? Because I had a high blood sugar (380) and wouldn't drink orange juice to fix it. That boss was a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Katie said…
This is a great response. Thanks for sharing!

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