My diabetic sister & Dr Montgomery

I sometimes wonder how life would have turned out if Julie really was my diabetic sister. Maybe I never would have thrown the baby out with the bath water? Maybe I never would have felt the need to make the pact?

Life turned out pretty well anyway, but it could have been so much easier.

For all of us.

With my first real diabetic sisters, K & G, Sydney, 1995

I still remember it, forty years down the track.  I was twelve and Julie was the ‘diabetic sister’ assigned to me when I was admitted to hospital after diagnosis. She was gorgeous, warm, totally reassuring and calmly confident. She explained diabetes to me over a couple of days – showed me how to give myself injections (just one a day), and made the list of food exchanges seem perfectly reasonable (which of course they weren’t).

Julie recommended the red book with the artificial pancreas diagram and my mum bought it for me. There was a sense of relief and exuberance in feeling alive again after the confusing weeks of DKA.

On Julie’s third visit, the day after I got the drip out, I must have said something that gave away my gullibility, that indicated my mistake. Because I saw her face. A fleeting, startled look, and then what was probably a look of compassion when she realised.

The penny had dropped for me that Julie didn’t actually have diabetes herself.

I was “a diabetic” and she was “a diabetic” sister, so it was an easy mistake for a 12 year old to make. But I didn’t realise that then. I was mortified at my own error.

It was as though something I was holding on to, a kind of lifeline, was let go. Julie’s visits tapered off quickly and I began a kind of psychic drift.

I studied the red book, did my maths homework, and lurked around the kids ward, imagining what everyone was in for. There were colourful posters on the walls, bright lights, and quiet children spaced out in their beds. No one said much.

The world seemed a little cooler and lonelier. A bit more fragile too. I think I saw Julie once or twice again briefly, before I was discharged at the end of the two weeks.

But I still had Doctor Montgomery.

Doctor Montgomery came every morning to visit me on his rounds. He was my paediatrician. A kind, round man whose eyes crinkled when he smiled. He seemed middle aged, just like all the other adults did when I was twelve.

He told me his mother had type 1 diabetes and he used to give her her injections.

Doctor Montgomery’s office had giraffes on the walls and stuffed toys on the examination table. On the one hand this felt too childish, on the other it was comforting.

I could always see one of the giraffes when I looked across the desk at him after I’d handed over my log book for inspection.

I noted -, +, ++ or +++ in the logbook to represent the amount of sugar in each urine test. And I kept to the same once-daily insulin dose between appointments. I started making some of my results up just like all the other kids. Filling in the blanks. There was no HbA1c then. No way of knowing.

It wasn’t about being rebellious or lazy. It was just a matter of logistics. I took my test tubes, eye dropper and Clinitest tablets to school for the first two days and it was awful. Embarrassing. You had to go out of the toilet and add water to the tubes etc. One male friend who’s had diabetes even longer than me just laughed when I told him I took the kit to school. He didn’t even contemplate it.

I’m not totally sure that anyone explained to me exactly what would be done with the results in the log books either. I don’t remember anyone pointing out what it was we were looking for. I guess the insulin dose was adjusted based on the readings. Once every three months.

My mother always sat next to me during my appointments with Doctor Montgomery. I could feel her anxiety and I sensed that pleasing the Doctor was a priority.

For some reason, at one of the appointments, my mother was not there. It felt more relaxed and Doctor Montgomery managed to coax me into speaking.

I really enjoyed this appointment, but right at the end he said something that puzzled me. He took off his glasses, winked at me, and said, “Mary Anne, one day you’re going to just sit down and eat a whole bag of Minties, and that’s absolutely fine.”

I remember thinking this was really weird advice. There must have been about 100 ‘portions’ of carbohydrate in a full bag of Minties, and no way for the insulin to process it. Also, I didn’t really like Minties.

Anyhow … one day, not long after, I did actually find myself with a bag of Minties. I ate every one of them and sat there afterwards with the Mintie wrappers, tearing them into thin strands. Then I joined them together, in a chain.

The whole thing was very satisfying.

And I never did go back for another appointment with Doctor Montgomery. I was moved into adult care.

Years later, I’m blessed to have some very funny, very capable, ‘diabetic sisters’ in my life once again.

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