Sugar Shock: What It's Like to Be Pregnant...and Diabetic
It was September 24, 2002. Nearly three weeks after examining me, my obstetrician had sent a letter saying my glucose appeared "slightly elevated" and suggested a glucose tolerance test. Fed up with my inability to ever get her on the phone, I called a colleague's husband, a respected obstetrician-gynecologist, and read him the results of the test. There was a pause—I remember that—and then I know he said, "Uh-huh, okay, hold on a minute while I make a call." After a very long minute, he got back on the line with what struck me as an absurd question. "Are you wearing shoes?" he asked. "Yep, I'm in my sensible pregnant-girl flats," I answered. "Good," he said. "I want you to grab your bag and get into a taxi. You'll be going to 168th Street and Saint Nicholas Avenue. Take the elevator to the..." It was going way too fast. "Listen," I said, "I'm pretty beat, but maybe tomorrow." And then he cut to the chase: "You're diabetic," he said, "and this baby can't wait until tomorrow." He explained that my soon-to-be-former doctor had taken much too long to diagnose me and that my baby's organs were being formed in an environment of uncontrolled sugar. He said other things, but it was all a blur. Thirty-five minutes later, I found myself at the place that would become my second home: Columbia University's Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center in New York City.
I have endured great pain in my day. A large woman named Helga waxes my bikini line every May, and I had a roommate who once listened to Enya for nine straight hours—so believe me when I tell you I understand human suffering, and I realize that in the grand scheme of things a little finger jab or an occasional shot in the arm doesn't really hurt all that much. But needles freak me out. It's irrational, it's phobic, it's not changing anytime soon. Before I meet the doctor, I am given a hemoglobin A1C test—a simple finger stick that determines your average blood sugar for the past three months. "Not that hand; this one," I sob. "Wait, this finger. Use this finger. Hold it; I'm not ready," I plead as I breathe in the nauseating smell of rubbing alcohol on cotton. The little girl in the next chair rolls her eyes. A slightly more sympathetic preschooler assures me that "they're quite good here." It is not pretty when you're seated with two people under the age of 7 and the only one who wants her mommy is you. Just then I feel a hand on my shoulder. "Hi, I'm Dr. Robin Goland. We'll sit down and talk in a couple of minutes," and in a futile effort to further reassure me, she adds, "I promise you're not the first woman in history ever to be diabetic and pregnant." But I'm pretty sure she's wrong. "Actually, Dr. Goland, I believe I'm the first woman in history ever to be pregnant."
Holding my newly pricked finger as if I'd been bayoneted, I settle in for a chat with Dr. Goland. She is a combo platter, equal parts wry, compassionate, and no-nonsense, a slim powerhouse in her late 40s who I imagine cheerfully defusing a midlevel nuclear device while forging a permanent peace in the Middle East and harnessing solar energy. Over time I'll find out that she has absolutely no grasp of pop culture and once forgot her child at an ice rink, but this is only our first date. Today I need her to be clear, kind, heroic—and that's exactly what she is.
She explains that there are 18 million diabetics in the United States, and nearly one-third of them are walking around undiagnosed: "The problem is that often a person with diabetes feels no different from someone with normal blood sugar. Their blood vessels could be getting damaged, but they have no idea anything's wrong. In most cases, an individual's normal blood sugar, after fasting overnight, is under 100. The symptoms people generally associate with diabetes—urinating frequently, unquenchable thirst, poor wound healing, feeling very tired—don't usually occur until the blood sugar is above 250. The slow rise in blood sugar, from out of the normal range to frank diabetes to really severe high blood sugar, can take a decade or more."
Next: The shocking results of Lisa's test