Diabetes, from Clinical to Personal

In this guest post, Rhonda Morgan, a registered nurse, describes how type 1 patients in diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) and severe hypoglycemia were treated in the emergency department in the 1970s and 1980s. Rhonda’s understanding of type 1 diabetes changed in 2014, when the clinical became personal.

I began my career as a registered nurse in 1974, the summer I graduated college and passed my board exams. This was one of the sundry times there was a nursing shortage, so I started to work as a new graduate in a very busy emergency department (ED) of a 500+ bed hospital. It was grand. The ED affords ample opportunity to see just about everything. And we saw a lot of patients with diabetes in those days, primarily adults in DKA. Another frequently seen diabetic-related emergency was hypoglycemia (“insulin shock,” as it was known then), and these patients all too often presented to the ED, unconscious, with seizures, and with a very low blood glucose. Many doses of D50 (dextrose 50%) were administered empirically to known patients with T1D presenting with these symptoms. Likely no state of unconsciousness is as easily and instantly reversed. Occasionally, a child would present to the ED and be diagnosed with type 1, but children were always admitted to pediatrics, and never hung around in the ED for very long.

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Rhonda Morgan, RN in the ED, 1981, preparing an IV

The adult type 1 patient in DKA was one of my favorite patients to manage and care for in the ED, because the course was so dynamic, and one could see the favorable results of treatment over a short period of time. One of the really great ED physicians, with whom I worked for many years, would elect to keep these patients in the ED and treat them, as opposed to admitting them to the hospital, if they did not have insurance. This was much more financially feasible for the patient and family, plus the patient had constant care.

In those days, we had no bedside (point of care) blood glucose testing. We tested for glucose in the urine of our patients with diabetes using clinitest tablets. The clinitest method involved shaking a tablet out of the bottle into the test tube (because you could not touch the tablet with your fingers), adding 6 drops of urine and 10 drops of sterile water and waiting for the chemical reaction to occur. The contents of the test tube would fizz and generate heat, and then change color. After 30 seconds, one would compare the color of the liquid in the test tube to a color chart to determine the corresponding blood glucose. The test was very imprecise, but none the less we used this method of testing for glucose, along with blood tests that were sent to the lab, and took an hour or more to get the results.

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A few years later, test strips were available, but again, this method tested for glucose in urine and was not a direct or current measurement of blood glucose. DNA recombinant (Humalog/Novalog) insulins and basal insulins were not yet developed. We had regular insulin, NPH, Lente insulin, and ultra-Lente, the last two being longer-acting insulins. All were bovine origin.

Later in my career, I worked in critical care as a clinical specialist and helped institute computerized, and then later, web-based algorithms to manage hyperglycemia of critical illness, prevalent in both diabetic and non-diabetic patients in the ICU.

So, I have been around a lot of folks with diabetes. I have managed treatment and cared for of a lot of folks with diabetes in DKA, and in critical illness situations. However, I knew nothing about how to manage and oversee the maintenance of T1D until my grandson, Henry, was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 3.

Then, I saw the “other side” of diabetes— the personal side, not the clinical rescue, critical, immediate treatment regimen, but the everyday, every night, day-in, day-out routines that must be undertaken to keep him safe in the immediate, and to offer the best odds of avoiding the long term complications of diabetes. This side of diabetes management is just as critical as the side of diabetes care with which I was so familiar.

Our entire family had a learning curve that was fast paced. It was not easy, and it is not for the short term. It is for life. Henry was started on multiple daily injections at diagnosis in March 2014. Needless to say, this approach was filled with anxiety and unpleasantness for all. Thanks to his smart and advocating parents, he got his insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor in late May, just shy of 3 months into his life with diabetes. The pump ushered in a new learning curve, and the continuous glucose monitor gave us an eye on previously unseen data.

How I wish Henry did not have to live his life with diabetes, but he does.

I think back to 1974 and putting those 6 drops of urine in the test tube and feeling the warmth of the chemical reaction in my hand, and I contrast that to a direct blood glucose value we get multiple times daily in just seconds, CGM data transmitted over an iphone around the world, and insulin delivered with a pump, and I am confident Henry can have a happy, healthy productive life.

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Henry and his Nonna in 2014

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