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Voices: My Curse and My Blessing

by Bill Goff '05
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I remember the doctor slowly pushing open the door to Exam Room Three where my mother and I were waiting anxiously. My eyes were half-shut. I was exhausted, yet my heart was still racing. I felt helpless waiting on the examination table, virtually alone with my own horrifying imagination. I suspected the worst. But what would be the worst? I didn’t even know. I was only 10, and utterly confused.

"Bill," the doctor said. "I’m sorry, but you have diabetes."

That was the last thing I recall him saying. I knew nothing of the word "diabetes," nor what it meant for my future. All I gathered was a solemn stare from my mother and some undecipherable jargon from my physician. I began crying with every ounce of energy left in my depleted body. It was all I could do in Exam Room Three.
My visit to the doctor was the culmination of a month-long struggle. The first week of the 1994, my body began to speak to me in a very unusual way. I was constantly tired and thirsty. After I would take even a brief shower, I would have to lie down because my body was so tired from standing up. Nearly a dozen soft drinks a day did little to quench my uncontrollable thirst. Instead, they forced me to urinate, sometimes more than 12 times a day. No amount of rest could ease my fatigue. The only thing I could do reasonably well was sleep; even then, I had difficulty breathing.

The symptoms went with me to school. I could hardly stay awake during the day. My grades suffered. My basketball coach sat me on the bench. Even the nurse wondered what was wrong with me. All I could tell her was that I felt tired and thirsty. By the end of those three weeks, I had lost nearly 25 pounds. My birthday was near, and I thought I was dying.

My mother suspected that I had anemia. I’m not sure what would have been worse, having a low red blood cell count or erratic blood sugar. I didn’t have a choice, but in the end, I would rather have had neither.

I was admitted to Riley Children’s Hospital the day after my diagnosis, my 11th birthday. There we were trained to handle juvenile diabetes. Our crash course included many several-hour sessions with pediatrician specialists covering everything from insulin injections to blood sugar testing to hypoglycemia. I didn’t learn a thing from those doctors. Actually, most of what they said sounded like a foreign language. The best I could do was pretend to be interested.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about the other patient in my room that weekend; he had kidney failure from diabetes. He let diabetes take control of his body, and now his only chance for survival was a full transplant. I felt lucky just to have the diabetes, as horrible as it seemed.

The image of that young man entrenched itself in my memory. I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.

Maintaining my blood sugar was surprisingly simple for the first five years, but it was also frustrating. Minor problems—such as deciding on an appropriate sugar testing and injection schedule—I handled with relative ease, mostly because teachers and school nurses were alerted of my "situation" everywhere I went. It seemed as though every step I took in middle school was monitored by at least one teacher. Even during Little League baseball games, my mother would visit the dugout nearly every inning to make me test my blood sugar. I thought she was annoying, but at least I didn’t have to wear a sign around my neck with DIABETIC in bold print.

In high school, I convinced my parents that constant supervision was stifling.

Just as I gained more freedom, though, problems with my blood sugar became more frequent. My difficulty came to a head one day at school. I was a freshman at Brownsburg High School and happily attending a choir concert in Crawfordsville. On Interstate 74 traveling homeward, I began to hear a persistent ringing in my head and my fingers went numb. I felt very lightheaded. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t even bring myself to tell the boy sitting next to me what I was experiencing. I was confused, and helpless.

I slipped into the dream world of hypoglycemia. I couldn’t utter a complete sentence; nobody knew about my disease. Later, my choir mates told me that they thought I was just being "me" by not responding to their questions. They thought I was displaying my dry sense of humor as I did in class.

I fell asleep. Or so I thought. I awoke several minutes later with my face pressed to the floor of Brownsburg High’s main hallway, handcuffs shackling my wrists.

This is messed up, I thought. What the hell do am I doing in handcuffs?

I found out later that our bus had arrived home from the concert and that I had been wandering aimlessly about the high school trying to open each locked door. I even ventured through the natatorium to the fenced-in air conditioner cubicle. I was lucky to that I didn’t fall into the pool.

The janitor must have figured me for a drug addict and called the police when I didn’t respond to him. Moments later the paramedics arrived. They pressed an IV into my arm and I was fully awake. Luckily, my parents were contacted before I was taken to jail for having a hypoglycemic reaction.

That episode sharpened the reality of being diabetic for me. I could potentially hurt myself if I my blood sugar ever spun of out control. I handled myself very well under constant supervision. Anyone could "act responsibly" if he was being told what to do and when. But what about college? Who would help me then? The only person I could look to was myself.

Leaving home for Wabash was a potentially dangerous experience. But I viewed it as an opportunity—an opportunity to prove to myself that I could be diabetic and live a normal life. I wanted to be in control of my disease so much that nobody would know that I have it. It seemed so simple: check my blood sugar four times a day, eat three meals, and have food on hand everywhere I went.

I could take food to class if I had to, or even to the Armory computer lab late at night. That much was simple.
But playing baseball was entirely different.

A sports analyst on ESPN once said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult skill to master in all of sport. I would argue that managing one’s blood sugar while hitting a baseball is probably harder. College baseball was much different than in high school. During my first year, I had a difficult time stabilizing my sugar levels, especially on the road.

In any given game, I found that blood sugar could vary from as much as a few hundred points to very little, if at all. I could not predict what would happen on what day. We always had a trainer around, but even he couldn’t tell me what was wrong with my body. About once every season I had a negative reaction on the field, even though I tested my sugar between every inning. Once a season, I was simply caught off guard. It happened without warning.

I learned, eventually, that sometimes diabetes takes control of me.

It might seem a realistic possibility to let diabetes become my scapegoat for failure. Well, I can’t. I won’t. That would be too easy. I would rather be living proof that diabetes will limit the individual only as much as he will let it. I would rather take control of my life.

I wouldn’t trade my disease, my curse nd my blessing, for anything in the world.*

Bill Goff pitched for the Little Giants through his senior year, when he wrote this essay. The left-hander also pitched in the Great Lakes Collegiate Summer Baseball League; he is currently working in management at National City Bank.