Help Me Heal: Diabetes at Davidson

Personal Essay: Nick Johnson ‘19

I wake up before my alarm and roll over, only for the patch adhesed to my abdomen through which insulin flows into me to tug at my skin. Fully awake after the unpleasantness, I sit up and unplug the pump itself from the wall where it was charging overnight, causing it to pull on me in the first place. I try not to think about having to plug a life-giving machine into the wall while it’s connected to me, especially since now my day has begun, and I have to work on all of the things that I expect myself to accomplish in my time at Davidson. I could’ve lain back down for a little longer, like you might have done, but to healthfully pursue my goals at Davidson, I make use of all the time I can squeeze out of the day: sleep deprivation, diabetes, and all.

Davidson as a whole makes a sincere effort when it comes to ensuring the health of its students. As a type one diabetic, I frequently have to interact with these efforts in order to function at my own standards, marked by academic rigor and hyper-involvement just like you. But health isn’t so simple: one has to think that hey are healthy and making choices to perpetuate that health, while their community affirms their behaviors as healthy. Health is what the individual perceives it to be, but one’s perception is not as simple as deciding one is healthy.

During the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I received an email from Student Health. It explained that a number of incoming first years had type one diabetes, and the staff wanted to form a small support group for all those interested in talking about diabetes and how to navigate Davidson with this chronic illness. I had been a spokesperson for the JDRF, a major non-profit for diabetes research and advocacy, and so feel a deep connection to other diabetics. Not really knowing what to expect, I jumped at that opportunity to be part of a space at Davidson where diabetics could relate to each other and share with each other, to just be in the same room as so many other diabetics.

But a month later, I got another email from Student Health, introducing all of the diabetics who had voiced interest in the support group to each other and announcing that, because of our enthusiasm, another student in my year and I would be the leaders of this support group. I remember my pulse beating heavily in my neck at this appointment to which I hadn’t consented. I had no idea how to lead a support group. I had no preparation  for that, nor could I claim that I knew what the needs of a dozen diabetics would be. I only knew my own diabetic experience and that I wanted to share that with others.

With no insight or direction, let alone training, I was thrown into putting this group together. The group of twelve had one meeting two or three weeks into the semester, where we talked about ourselves, our presence on campus so that people knew where to come in an emergency, and what our needs as diabetics were as we tried to be students. From their input, I felt like there was little we could do as a support organization, so the group fizzled out. Nonetheless, I tried to plan other meetings, but only one person ever showed up for those. After that, I remember getting a few emails from Student Health asking whether or not the group was active. I felt as though I had failed them for being unable to perpetuate this effort for them. My stress went up, but like you, I had plenty of other things to do and had no time to relieve myself of the guilt I felt. So I carried it.

Even this semester, during Hurricane Florence, emails were sent out from Student Health about putting medications in their refrigerator since they have a generator. Knowing that I would need another vial over the weekend and that Student Health is closed after 5 pm on Friday until Monday morning, I decided against it. I told myself that if the electricity ended up going out, I would just not open the mini fridge I have in my room solely for my insulin and hope it didn’t get too warm in there that the insulin would be ineffective: I would need all those vials to survive until Fall Break. As luck would have it, we barely lost electricity during the hurricane.

Only to really lose it a week later in the middle of the night. All of Martin Court and IAK went dark. Unfortunately, I had already gone to sleep and couldn’t worry about it until the morning when I fortunately had checked my phone to realize a power outage was occurring. Having planned to wake up slowly between 8 and 9 that morning, I had to spring out of bed, put on some pants, grab the cooler, throw in my warming insulin, and hurry to Student Health in an attempt to keep the insulin cool.

When I arrived, Student Health had no idea that there was a power outage for a significant portion of campus. Whoever sent me that email, advising students with medications that require refrigeration to contact Assistant Director Jan Poole, hadn’t taken the step to alert the Student Health office of the issue. That step could’ve made the difference between not having space in the refrigerator for insulin that must be kept cold (if not, I would have had to replace the thousands of dollars’ worth of insulin with new vials that must also be kept cold until use).

It is fortunate that the Health Center still had space, what with the approach of the flu season coming and all the vaccinations in the fridge. It would have been so easy for one person to send an email to another across departments to help preserve students’ medications, but instead chance was on my side that there was space so I didn’t have to make a case for the refrigeration of my insulin and the economic investment it represents, since no one else was going to do that.

Davidson has helped me in many ways with my health, putting structures in place to help me succeed. Yet the implementation of these structures, their actual function, relied heavily on my individual effort. I have felt isolated, singled out because of the effort I have to provide to the community of diabetics on campus. Because of the meaning I find in this community, I was willing to sacrifice myself for it. Yet I, like you, have so many things to do. I just keep moving, hoping the support that I only get from my friends doesn’t become too much of a burden for them, because I’m afraid of trying to get support in other ways for fear of it turning into further stress.

Illustration by Richard Farrell ’22

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