Saturday, April 28, 2012

Too Legit to Quit

Today's Prompt: The First Time I… Write a post about the first time you did something. What is it? What was it like? What did you learn from it?

I've been itching to write about Prague for a while. Never quite found the right moment. I think this prompt will work.

So this will be about the first time I...left the country with diabetes...and left my insulin in the wrong country.

It was 2001, I was 21 and over a decade into type 1 diabetes. I'd been on the Minimed 508c insulin pump for a year. And I went on a summer study abroad trip to east Germany. I was confident I could take care of myself.

On our first weekend there, a group of us decided to take the 8 hour train ride into the Czech Republic to see Prague. Famous Prague. Lovely Prague.

We arrived in the beautiful old city late Saturday afternoon. The Prague of my memory is always in shades of sepia. It evoked another time. Eastern Europe. Cyrillic letters on aging signs.

As we walked the trek to our youth hostel, a girl asked me what all I had to carry for my diabetes. I rattled off my list and got to...insulin. &@?$$!

Insulin. The bottles I'd left on a closet shelf in my little apartment in Germany 8 hours away. I checked my pump to find I had less than 4 hours left before my reservoir was empty. I hadn't packed a refill bottle.

Two fellow travelers and I began the longest and scariest search of my life that rainy, sepia-stained afternoon.

At the first pharmacy, I learned that Humalog didn't exist in Eastern Europe yet and that they couldn't sell Regular to me without a current Czech prescription. The pharmacist didn't care that I was crying. So I needed to find a doctor who'd write me the script.

I called my mom from a pay phone downtown and couldn't bring myself to tell her what I'd done. Didn't want her to worry. So I told her that my foot that I'd broken a couple years before was aggravated and that I was going to see if I could get someone to look at it. It was true. It just wasn't everything.

We got a cab and asked to be taken to a doctor. On the third floor of an unmarked building, a woman in a white coat took my passport and made us wait an hour in the hallway. The gruff doctor didn't speak English and I'd had four days of German at this point.

Ich bin diabetiker. Ich brauche insulin.

He said I was lying about being a student because my German wasn't good enough, nearly broke the reservoir door off of my Minimed pump trying to understand what it was, and finished my visit by literally grabbing me by the scruff of my shirt and tossing me into the hallway. "Alkoholik!" he muttered and slammed the heavy door.

We chased a passing ambulance on foot, hoping to find a hospital, losing it when it turned a corner. My friend considered pushing a construction worker into a hole, wondering if another ambulance would arrive.

We stopped pedestrians who generally led us in circles, tried to communicate with cabbies, learned the words for pharmacy, hospital, doctor.

It was raining. We continued on foot. We found a hospital. A nurse told my friend that they we're closed for the day and we were sent back into the street.

Once my reservoir neared empty and I'd truly exhausted crying, a sense of calm - and a blood sugar well over 300 - swept over me. I called my parents from a pay phone. To say goodbye. I didn't tell them that though. I just felt lost and wanted to hear my mom's voice one more time.

They were going to call the embassy. And my endocrinologist. And the president of the Czech Republic. I should go to the embassy, I should wait there by the phone, I...the money value on my phone card was ticking away on a little screen.

"I'll figure it out, Mom." (I wasn't really sure that I would.)

I didn't want to die in Prague. I put my hands on the shoulders of the sweet girl that was helping me.

"Get me back on the train. I'll probably go unconscious on the trip back. When you get back to Weimar, find our professor and get me to a hospital."

I didn't think I'd last eight hours with no insulin. But I'd survived a coma before. I just didn't think anyone there could help me and she was at least willing to leave. I hated having to put that on her. I'll never forget the look in her eyes.

We made our way back to the hostel for my luggage, and my friend told the hostel manager - a large sweaty man with gold necklaces and thick chest hair - about my plight.

He called around. He was going to get me a fake Canadian passport on the black market, take me to a Canadian hospital. He finally got someone at the American Medical Center to page an on call doc to meet us there.

We waited in the rain. I was limping on the break in my foot. I was high. Sick. Just wanted to lie down and sleep...forever. And for some reason there was a sign with my name on it. I still don't know why.

The waiting room played American music. I remember thinking - hoping - that Too Legit to Quit wouldn't be the last song I ever heard.

The doctor wrote me an Rx, gave me crutches and aspirin, and called a pharmacy across the city asking them to stay open until we could get there.

That night, I filled my pump with R pen cartridges. (I still have them.) I lay in a bunk bed swearing I would be out on the first morning train. And I was.

I learned a lot about myself. I learned what true desperation felt like. I learned how hard I would fight. I grew up a lot that day.

Looking back, I see that I was complacent. Forgetting my insulin - my "big oops" as my then endo called it - was a sign that I didn't treat diabetes like it could kill me.

I gained some respect for both me and D that day.

And even then, most of my classmates thought I'd made a big deal over nothing. "She should have just bought some generic insulin over the counter," said the pre-med biology major.

Yeah. They stock that right next to the Advil.


  1. Oh, Melissa. You've shared this with me before, but this has a little more detail. I think I will forever relate you in some way to Katniss now as this makes me think of her dehydration and need for water and being on the brink, but she was a fighter and got through it as did you. I cannot believe the ignorance and difficulty you had to survive. It was like everything was stacked against you. I would have thought that diabetes was more globally understood, particularly by medical professionals. Thank you for opening up and sharing this compelling, nearly impossible to believe story. And that sign is too much!

  2. Oh my... what a scary story! I'm so glad you had people with you and weren't by yourself!! Some things never change though. People do not understand how serious the lack of insulin is. And the comment by the pre-med student had me laughing :-)