Justin’s disappointment over missing the entire all-star baseball season lingers in the back of his mind.
A feeling he can’t shake.
His teammates most likely forgot that he was voted as the starting catcher.
Justin thinks he’d be too embarrassed to step on any field with his new chronic condition.
He thinks his friends have forgotten him.
Justin thought that the hospital stay was going to last an afternoon.
It lasted a week.
Not a single visit from his friends.
“Dad, does this mean I’m not going to get picked next year?” Justin asks.
“Son, you were just diagnosed with a chronic illness. It will have nothing to do with the next season.” Dad says.
Justin hates the word chronic.
It makes him think of a death sentence.
The word was used over and over during his week-long stay at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
Justin bites his lip with frustration.
“Happy thirteenth birthday to the chronically ill all-star no-show,” Justin mumbles.
“Huh?” Dad asks.
“Nevermind, I want to leave,” Justin Says.
“We just have to wait for mom to get the discharge instructions and then we can go son,” Dad says.
Justin sits for a moment then stands up and fiddles with the plastic bracelet on his wrist.
“It’s going to be okay, Son. I promise you,” dad says.
It doesn’t seem true.
Justin gazes at the white-tiled floor, the drab white walls, the busy-bodied nurses passing to and fro rooms with closed sheet-like curtains. He inhales the disgusting smell of alcohol swabs and antiseptics, the liquid from syringes and the cold vapor of saline solution and vitamin drips. He listens to the tiresome cadence of beeping hospital equipment.
“I’m still going to be able to play football this year, right?” Justin asks.
“I don’t know son. Let’s worry about getting settled and eating right, getting your weight back up, and…” Dad says.
“I don’t care about my weight. I don’t care about carbohydrates or portions or weighing my food. I don’t care that the toilet seat gets sticky from my pee when my blood sugar is high. I don’t… I…” Justin says.
Justin’s father draws him near.
“Son, we’re going to figure this all out and before you know it everything will be back to normal.” Dad says.
Justin wants to scream.
He doesn’t know how to express his insecurities.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” Justin says.
How would he play football with a device the size of a small phone connected to his abdomen? And the ‘supply bag’ the doctors spoke of so casually? It was a pack the size of a briefcase with sugar tablets and gels, vials and needles, insulin pump infusion sets and medical tape, a glucose monitor with lancets and test strips.
Justin thinks his new name is ‘diabetic boy.’
A gnawing sense of panic spreads with his thought.
He feels like he did something really wrong. Like, at some point, maybe he could have done this or that and he wouldn’t be ‘diabetic boy.’
He thinks it was the Twinkies and Mountain Dew.
The truth is the doctors don’t know why a young teen of perfect health comes down with diabetes mellitus. Most chronically ill patients will never know why or how they become sick.
Yuck, there’s that word again.
“Justin, how’s my favorite patient doing?” Dr. Richard Hanson says.
Justin remembers the doctor’s first words. “The good news is you’re awesome and you are going to live a long and happy life. The bad news is you’re going to have to try a little harder at things than most.”
The meaning of “try harder” was extremely uncomfortable for the young patient.
“I’m…. Uhhhh, I’m….” He stutters.
Justin feels his whole body tense.
His throat cramps.
He can’t hold back the confusion any longer.
He cries and places his face in his hands.
“Oh Justin, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to be just fine.” Dr. Hanson says.
Justin takes a deep breath.
“But how? How will it be okay? I’ll never eat another meal or do anything, for that matter, without thinking about it. Without thinking of…. Well, this!” Justin says.
He points to the object attached to his belt. The harpoon-like shunt driven into his belly covered by medical dressing.
Dr. Hanson invites Justin to sit.
“Please, Justin. Talk to me. Let me ease your anxieties. I’ve had diabetes my whole life, so I can level with you.” Says Dr. Hanson.
“How old were you?” Asks Justin.
“I was Juvenile onset myself. I was your age, Justin. I wasn’t so lucky as you to be diagnosed on my birthday, but…” Says Dr. Hanson.
“Happy 13th birthday to me, huh,” he says.
Justin’s mood lightens.
“So tell me, what are your fears? What are you worried about the most?” Asks Dr. Hanson.
“I can just hear what they are all going to say… Justin, what’s that? Oooh, does it hurt? My buddies will treat me like a freak show!” Justin says.
“You’re scared that it’s going to make you different?” Dr. Hanson says.
He wipes his nose on his shirt sleeve.
His eyes widen to a discovery.
“Well, yeah. But… I want to be different. This just isn’t the thing that I want to make me different,” Justin says.
“Justin, you’re a bright young man with your entire life ahead of you. Diabetes will never define who you are. All of these things that you are thinking and feeling right now are completely normal. I remember feeling just like you. When I was diagnosed we didn’t have these fancy insulin pumps either….” Says Dr. Hanson.
“Huh? This! There’s nothing fancy about this awkward thing. I’m almost in high school. I could live with a little Motorola pager. Those were even the thing two years ago. But this is a boat anchor. It looks dorky. Weird. Just weird. It’s like they are all going to point and want to look and I just don’t want any of it! It’s not okay. None of this feels okay.” Justin says.
Dr. Hanson’s big blue eyes widen and he smiles.
“Justin, I want you to know something. Person to person though, not diabetic to diabetic,” says Dr. Hanson.
His smile is soft and sincere.
Justin intently looks his pediatric endocrinologist in the eyes.
He hangs on every word he says.
“You are in control. Make no mistake about it, young man. Your fears begin and end in your own mind. What you give power to in life will have power over you.” Says Dr. Hanson.
Beep, beep, beep.
Dr. Hanson pulls the lapel of his jacket to the side and looks to his waste.
“Look at this, Justin. I got a pager and a pump. Ain’t that something?” Dr. Hanson says.
Justin’s father approaches.
“There you are, Justin. Your mother and I have been looking for you,” his father says.
“Mr. Sanderson, can I just say how remarkable this young man is,” says Dr. Hanson.
“His mother and I like to think so, but then again, we are a bit biased,” says Justin’s father.
“Well, gentlemen, I’ve got to get going now, but we will be talking soon. Justin, please always remember what I said. And any time you are having insecurities or concerns please call my office. You are not in this alone.” Says Dr. Hanson.
Justin smiles and shakes Dr. Hanson’s hand. As he does he reaches in for a hug and the doctor happily embraces him.
“You’re going to be just fine, young man.” Says Dr. Hanson.
“Thank you doctor,” says Justin’s father.
As Justin walks with his father towards the intake lobby he stops and gives his dad a hug.
“Are you doing okay?” His father asks.
“Yeah dad, I’m okay. Sometimes it’s just hard being optimistic when I’m scared,” Justin says.
“Remember what dad always says?” His father asks.
“That you’re always right…” Justin says.
“Ha ha, son. Now that’s the number one rule! But, besides that?” His father says.
Justin laughs with authentic joy.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Uhmm, but I’m not supposed to drink lemonade… too much sugar,” Justin says.
“I’m sure a little glass of lemonade won’t hurt,” his father says.
“It’s all about choices,” says Justin.
“I’m so proud of you son. You’re my brave boy,” his father says.
Justin feels better for a short time, and the struggle continues.
It’s going to be hard.
Many confusing days follow.
The honeymoon period during which his body would occasionally release insulin. The time Justin would fall unconscious in a restaurant with his friends on a ski trip. The paramedics saving him from a low blood sugar episode on the football field when Justin would be too embarrassed to ask for a timeout. The skateboarding accident that would render him concussed due to sudden drops in sugar levels.
Countless moments he could never imagine.
Maybe he was ‘diabetic boy.’
But through it all, Justin would learn to not just deal with a chronic illness, but all the insecurities life would bring.