If there’s one rule in awaiting a transplant, it’s the absolute one that you have to stay alive until the transplant occurs.
I almost failed that requirement Tuesday.
An episode of extremely low blood sugar almost did me in. The consequence has advanced kidney damage and nightmares. But it also offers lessons for anyone with diabetes, especially type 1 diabetes and especially those on the verge of renal failure.
In recent weeks, I’d noticed my blood sugar levels have been more difficult to control. That’s because advanced kidney disease can result in the kidneys being unable to process insulin as efficiently, which means insulin builds in the bloodstream. This poses a greater risk of low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, which can be fatal.
Tuesday morning, I ate blueberries and little else, which upset my stomach. I got nauseated and vomited, which emptied my stomach. When able, I finally drank juice to elevate low blood sugar levels and then took a bath. I was getting dressed for work about 8:20 a.m. when it happened.
I can remember getting woefully weak and deciding to go downstairs for some sugar, although my mind already was fading. When I reached the couch, I saw our little dog, Cricket, and noticed he looked black and white, almost ghoulish, and I grew worried that he was ill. The fact is, I’d lost my ability to see color.
Forlorn Cricket was the last image I remember.
My wife, Suellen, had gone to work that morning and was thinking of waiting for the plows to clear the snow before coming home that evening. Lucky for me, she decided to face the weather. In her car, she checked her voice-mail that revealed that my boss had called to inquire why I had not arrived at work that day. This raised immediate concern. She knew immediately what might have happened.
She raced home and found my car in the driveway still covered with snow. Her worst fears now were realized. She had rehearsed in her mind what she had to do. Bursting into the house, she found me on the couch with my chin against my chest.
She didn’t think I was breathing.
She called 911, then ran to the kitchen to get injectable glucose. The 911 attendant had told her to pull me off the couch to the floor to clear my airway. She injected me with glucose.
Now the problem was the long driveway filled with snow, with her car blocking it at the bottom. She’d been unable to drive to the house.
The Fort Cherry Ambulance Service has the only four-wheel-drive ambulance in Washington County. They came rushing. The Mount Pleasant Fire Department sent a fire truck and plow, if needed. Eight paramedics and fire officials arrived in minutes and rushed to my aid.
Seeing me, they told Sue it didn’t look good but proceeded to inject with me dextrose and work to revive me …
At first, I heard voices. Then I saw dark silhouettes. Finally, I blinked and could see color and realized that a number of men were gathered around me, staring at me and working on me. I knew immediately what had happened. I was glad to be awakened but was not yet able to talk or think clearly.
On a gurney, I was taken to the ambulance, and after Sue hopped in, we were off to the races to Canonsburg Hospital through the snow.
It was one fast ride. I grew nauseated from riding backward but was glad I had any feelings at all. When I arrived at the hospital, my body temperature was 89 degrees from having lain on the couch and sweating from hypoglycemia for nine hours.
In the emergency room they wrapped me in heated blankets and a “bear-hugger” that bathes you in warm air. They took blood and put me on an IV to restore fluids and did all things hospitals do to check vital signs, determine condition and mend problems they can detect.
Shortly after my arrival, my daughter Abbie, an M.D. in family practice, also arrived.
In the end, I spent three hours in the emergency room before being transferred to the ICU for the night, where my blood sugar, heart function and vital signs were monitored all night long with periodic blood work. Eventually I was able to eat a bit, but continued vomiting throughout the night.
I didn’t sleep. I watched PBS specials on Ulysses S. Grant and earthquakes while thinking how lucky I was, what changes I needed to make and what damage the episode might have caused my health.
By morning, I was able to eat breakfast, and was released before noon. I was able to walk out of the hospital to the car.
Since then, I’ve continued to ponder the close call and scold myself in calling myself lucky. It wasn’t luck. Paramount skill of the paramedics and their willingness to throw their hearts and souls into saving my life is the reason I’m alive.
It’s scary how easy death can occur. One mistake in the morning. It’s also amazing at the power of the mind and body to survive nine hours of extremely low blood sugar.
But my thoughts constantly return to the excellent work of Brad and Dave, the two Fort Cherry Ambulance Service paramedics, and the rest of the rescue team, who saved my life literally. Sue and I will forever be impressed with and thankful for their efforts. I can only thank them for endangering their lives to save mine.
These guys are everyday heroes who face formidable challenges each day but never get the recognition they deserve.
Because of them and my wife Sue, I’m able to continue my quest in life. Due to their efforts, I remain a candidate for a transplant, a father, husband and reporter. They are the reason I’m still a candidate to receive organs rather a donor.
And I can my wait for a kidney-pancreas transplant that will remove this risk of low blood-sugar from my life, hopefully forever after.