I am so sensitive.
The word Diabetic is used to describe a person that has diabetes. It’s used in print all over the place and said by lots of people but I think it’s a label that puts the disease before the person.
Question: do any of these statements have a slightly more offensive ring to them?
You are congestive heart failure.
You are cancer.
You are a celiac.
You are gout.
You are thyroid disorder.
It’s not common for people to be identified as their disease or an event that happened to them but somehow, diabetes has an identity. This is a fragile line to walk and not everyone minds being called a Diabetic, but I think it matters for a number of reasons and it starts at the top. The people who should use the absolute most delicate and careful language, health care workers, often do not.
Here’s what happened:
I schooled an ophthalmologist last week. He’s a good guy but I was provoked by a medical assistant (MA) who worked way too fast and rough for my liking. Nobody likes to feel the impatience oozing from the person dropping stinging liquid into their eyes three times over again. Also, I was the only one in the lobby and somehow I had to wait 20 minutes.
How in the hell does that happen every stinking time even when I show up early?!
But wait, this gets worse.
MA and I are both wearing masks, which puts a barrier on reading facial expressions and I need to make those. if I had a song to my name it might be called My Face Don’t Lie.
Splash! Here comes the first round of stinging liquid bombs to my eyeballs.
MA rolls into the keyboard and finger-attacks with verifying questions/judgements and what do you think the leading question was? I’m sure you guessed right! An accusation in question form “you’re a Diabetic?”
Then the quick fire began:
MA: “testing multiple times daily.” (not a question)
“No, I’m on a continuous blood glucose monitor.”
MA: “Pump.” (not a question)
MA: “you’re a diabetic, type 1… How long?”
“26 and a half years and I’m a diabetes educator.”
I had to say it. It’s not my place to state my rank when I’m not working but I reckon it was necessary this time.
MA: “Aww, really? (Sympathetic sigh) Did you mean for that to happen?”
It’s true that I wasn’t thinking about this career path when I was a teenager but how I kept my composure after this question is a miracle.
“Yeah, I did. I’m a national educator with the JDRF on nutrition and exercise for people with type 1, hoping to change the way we view diabetes as positive rather than negative.”
I was a bit in the red and remember feeling warm and tingly all over because I wanted to shake MA awake so badly. I remember thinking why me, why here? This crap never ends, does it?
Regardless, my manifesto flew over MA’s head faster than a gnat in the wind.
Splash! Second round of stinging liquid eye bombs.
MA sits back at the keyboard and runs through a medications list, eye care history and some other repetitive stuff that was less painful as I blotted my eyes.
Splash! Final round of stinging liquid eye bombs.
I was directed to read letters off a screen to test my sight before finally having the room to dilate by myself.
I sat there looking like someone contemplating a robbery pondering what to say. Tightly folded arms and eyes wandering all over the room like a cat following a laser dot. I think on my next choice carefully.
Let the fun begin.
It’s my first time meeting this young, friendly doctor. We chat and I get called a Diabetic a few more times as I’m planning when to have my moment. Once he rolls up close to my face to check my vision I have him right where I want him.
“Hey doc, Anybody ever tell you that this MA isn’t their favorite?”
Doc: “No-no, everything ok?”
“Well, I’d like to send you something about language use and diabetes.”
Doc: “I’m sorry, I can talk to you much more high-level than this since you’re in the field.”
“Oh no, I don’t mean that. You can talk to me like a little kid especially when it’s about my eyes. I’m talking about how medical professionals talk to people about diabetes. Can I send you an ADA paper?”
Doc listened attentively as I explained why I’m sensitive to being called “a Diabetic” and why people with diabetes can feel ashamed by labels. We talked about patients with type 2 diabetes who might feel like being a Diabetic is their identity and the more they hear themselves referred to as a disease rather than living with one, the less likely they are to feel motivated to change.
Being called “a Diabetic” has an undertone that can mean sadness, depression, or failure for some of us.
It was a good talk. I walked out with doc’s email address in heroic stride.
I thought more deeply on my actions once I got to the car. Did I go too far? Was I a jerk for telling on the MA? Honestly, I can’t help it anymore.
I think we can all agree that calling people by a label isn’t very nice. Even if intentions are harmless, we should know better. Especially those working in chronic care who see what disease does to a person.
Forest Gump was very clear about one thing: he didn’t like to be called stupid.
He was a complex character who was misunderstood and his greater qualities were often overlooked by what people saw on the surface. If Forest let people call him stupid he may have started to believe them. His story would’ve been much different if he decided that being stupid was a reason to stop trying.
Instead, Forest let his challenges motivate him to show the world that he wasn’t stupid. See Captain Dan for the opposite example until he realizes that people calling him a cripple isn’t his identity.
Diseases could be talked about in a way that motivates people to tap into their inner Forest and use their weakness to find strength. All it takes is a twist of the tongue to help someone think differently about diabetes. It’s important that positive language comes from health experts but it begins with the way we talk to ourselves and about ourselves to others.
Secondly, be bold enough to correct an authority figure.
I give you absolute permission from one person using diabetes as a strength to another.