My first job out of college was teaching English in rural Japan. I agreed to take the job during my senior year – before I could speak any Japanese and while still within my first full year of having diabetes. After graduation, I enrolled in an intensive language program and three months later, I flew to Japan. And yes, my diabetes came with me. The placement agency that hired me put me in a small town that was only an hour’s drive from the prefecture capital where there would, as they said, be hospitals equipped to handle my diabetes “in case anything went wrong.” To this day, I don’t think they realize what a smart decision that was.
It was about 18 months into my initial two-year contract – January of 2004. My then-boyfriend, Kazu, had come over one Friday night and we made ramen noodles for dinner. We went to sleep and the next thing I remember was having a bizarre dream about looking at a clock and seeing it was after 6 – but I didn’t know if that meant morning or evening – and I was surrounded by strange Japanese men who were talking to me. One of them seemed familiar, but I couldn’t say how I knew him or what his name was.
I decided that the dream I was apparently having was lame and I wanted to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t. Slowly, I started interacting with the familiar man. Yes, I knew who he was – but no, I didn’t know his name. No, I didn’t know where I was. Should I be speaking English or Japanese? I was laying down and felt that was the cause of my disorientation. I had to sit up to help wake from the dream, but I couldn’t. I realized I didn’t have any underwear on, and suddenly I became fixated on that – of all the things that were happening, that seemed like the biggest mystery. Someone kept taking blood glucose readings from my ear lobe. I began to realize it was not a dream and that the familiar man was, in fact, Kazu.
Here is what I learned after the fact:
I had gone severely hypoglycemic in the middle of the night. I didn’t have seizures, but I also didn’t wake up in the morning. Kazu had decided to let me sleep in, although he thought it was strange that I continued to sleep well past noon. By 3pm he called his mother, who was a nurse. She told him to call an ambulance, and he did. I was driven the 30 miles to the capital city, Morioka, in approximately 30 minutes – half the time the drive normally took. When I got to the hospital, my blood glucose was 21 mg/dl.
The doctors wanted to give me glucose through an IV, but couldn’t find a vein because I was dehydrated. Eventually, they had to cut off my underwear and place the IV in my leg near my hip. Once I came to, I demanded that my insulin pump, which had been running the entire time, be disconnected. They kept me there a few hours to ensure my blood glucose levels had stabilized and Kazu stayed with me the whole time. I remember being scared, asking him to talk to me, to tell me a story. I specifically remember requesting Cinderella, not realizing how difficult terms like “glass slipper” and “fairy god mother” would be in a different language, but he did his best. When we were finally released it was quite late at night and his mother came with warm clothes and drove us back to my apartment. It was only the second time I’d ever met her and I was completely mortified.
Once we’d gotten home, I started to vomit. We’d been warned that could happen due to the sudden changes in blood glucose levels. I was worried about putting my insulin pump back on. I was even more worried about sleeping that night, and for many nights after that.
I cannot tell you how horrible it is to have to make the phone calls I needed to make the following day to my family members who were 10,000 miles away to explain what had happened, that I was fine, and that I was planning to stay in Japan. Worse, I cannot tell you how horrible the conversations were a month later when the same thing happened all. over. again. But I did learn a lot about my body’s response to hypoglycemia and what factors could exacerbate it for me. I also learned about the fog that hypoglycemia can create, the sense of altered reality that feels like a dream, a video game, or some other non-critical experience. It was the first of several valuable diabetes lessons that I hope no else else has to experience.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I last spoke to Kazu, but I still appreciate that he did, in fact, save my life.