She had been out of jail for a little over a week and she looked it. Her clothes were ragged, her hair was disheveled and her smile revealed broken and missing teeth. It came as no surprise that her incarceration was due to a parole violation for a previous drug conviction. She had clearly lived a very hard life. She was also completely overwhelmed by her medical condition. She had diabetes and based on her lab results had no clue as to the severity of her illness or how to manage it.
He fasting blood sugar was measured at over 400, four times the upper limit of normal. It was not a fluke result as her once weekly blood sugars taken at home confirmed she was seriously out of control. As we talked it was her home blood sugar log that was most significant to me. The lack of numbers meant that she did not understand the importance of monitoring her blood sugars and the lack of response to the markedly abnormal results revealed ignorance about the need to control her disease.
I turned the conversation to the importance of monitoring her sugars and quickly saw her eyes glaze over. She had no idea what I was talking about. I asked some questions to gauge her knowledge of her disease and soon learned the problem. She was of below average intelligence and the basics of diabetes were at that moment beyond her comprehension. What could I do?
I could send her to diabetic classes, but she lacked transportation. The classes were just 6 miles away but that was about 5 miles too far. She had no car, no job and very little money. It was clear that her diabetic education would need to come slowly and in small pieces for her to absorb it. I realized there was only one option. I would need to have her come and see me frequently. It was up to me to teach her and help her.
“We are going to take this one step at a time," I said, "The first step is going to be you checking your sugars three times a day and keeping a log of your blood sugar results and of everything you eat. Then I want you to come back in a week so we can go over the numbers together.”
Her face sunk. “I can’t afford to come back in a week.”
“How much is your co-pay for an office visit?” I asked
“It is $20. I had to borrow money from a friend to come in today. I don’t have a job yet,” she said, embarrassed.
“So we will waive the co-pay. You need to come back in a week," I replied.
I saw her every week for the next 4 months. At first it was a struggle to get her to check her sugars on a regular basis and write them in her log book, as she only remembered about half of the time. It took almost a month to get enough data to be able to make recommendations about her diet and make medication adjustments with confidence. We kept at it and by the end the second month we were making progress and by the end of the third month the majority of her results were in the normal range. After 4 months I ordered blood work that showed her average blood sugars for the preceding 90 days. We reviewed the results together a few days later and I was able to tell her something that had once seemed impossible.
“You are a well-controlled diabetic!” Her smile was missing teeth, but it was still beautiful to see. She had gained control over an area of her life.
A month later she disappeared. She lost her insurance and could not afford the test strips or medications. I offered to see her in the office for free but she did not return. I never saw her again.
Reflecting on her story reminds me of several things. First, that while standardized approaches to patient care can make life easy, not all patients are standard. Some people need extra help. Second, extra help needs to come from somewhere and from someone who is willing to do a little more and go a little further. Sometimes I need to be that someone. Third, in spite of our best intentions and efforts there will always be those who we cannot help, those whose choices or circumstances are too much to overcome. We need to try anyway
The greatest lesson I learned is that you never know who will respond, who can be helped or where you can make a difference. Our job is not to judge in advance but to be there for people and to help whoever we can it whatever way we can.
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