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Photo by Travis Jensen
Photo by Michael Watkins (Two Vivid Photography)
I’m sitting in the backseat of Laura’s car on the way to the beach with friends, and we’re trying to understand Type 1 diabetes. It’s not easy for me because the parts of my brain meant to understand anything other than language, politics or sociology seem to be nonexistent. So she’s dumbing it down: “There’s a blood sugar window—below 90 is low and above 150 is high. When your blood sugar is low you need sugar, when it’s high you need insulin. And diabetics don’t have properly functioning pancreases to deliver that insulin.” Laura has a pump attached to her that helps deliver insulin when she needs it—sort of a bionic pancreas. “Problem solved then, right?” I ask.
Laura is unable to contain her laughter, and she’s laughing on behalf of the million and a half other people in her shoes. But she does more than chuckle on their behalf. She’s started a photo project called “You’re Just My Type,” a sort of “Humans of New York” for those living with Type 1 diabetes. Laura’s aim is to bring the community together at a large scale by telling people’s stories—a first step in her mission to use photography to make a difference in the world. In fact, she has a shoot scheduled in a few days on her day off, and she invites me to come along.
My morning that day is pretty straightforward. I fight my alarm clock for about 20 minutes before forcing myself out of bed, downing a smoothie, stretching and leaving for the gym. On my walk home, I eat an apple. I mindlessly shower, make some hard-boiled eggs and battle traffic to get to Laura’s place in Long Beach. That whole time, though, Laura’s been battling something else entirely.
Around two in the morning, she woke up to check her sensor to make sure her blood sugar hadn’t dropped so low that she was at risk of a seizure. It looked good, but to be safe she got out of bed to test her blood directly.
A PRICK OF HER FINGER, A DROP OF BLOOD ON A TEST STRIP AND SHE’S OKAY TO GO BACK TO SLEEP
When she wakes up, though, she’s high—210—and gives herself a proper correction to correspond with the oatmeal she’s about to eat. An hour after breakfast, it’s time to check again, ahead of her workout. She’s high again—226—but since she still has active insulin in her system from the previous correction and she’s about to work out for an hour, she doesn’t give herself a new correction. After the workout, she’s low—86—and dropping fast. Her smoothie comes with much more thought than mine ever will: there are at least 80 carbs in it, which will help raise my blood sugar, but should I also give myself insulin because I know over the next couple of hours it’s just going to go higher and higher, or do I wait a few minutes to feel better first, or should I not even have the smoothie?
Or, as she puts it to me in a text: “I DON’T HAVE ANY ANSWERS BECAUSE I’M NOT A PROFESSIONAL AND MY BODY IS AN UNPREDICTABLE MESS!”
And that’s how I find her in her apartment, working to balance things out before we head out to meet the ER nurse who has, like all of the participants in “You’re Just My Type,” enthusiastically agreed to take part. Laura takes me on a tour of her supply cabinet and refrigerator where boxes of test strips, needles of all sizes, tubing and bottles of insulin are stocked up for the daily routine of keeping her alive.
As I walk in, Laura gathers a collection of these supplies on her coffee table. She tells me she’s going to test her blood sugar and change the infusion set that connects to her insulin pump. The first needle is to her index finger. I can hear it pop out as it punctures her skin. She presses the tip of her finger forward with her thumb until a drop of blood forms, which is then absorbed into a test strip attached to a meter. Right now, it looks good. Afterward, she shows me her fingers, all covered in needle-prick scars that resemble a strange pattern, as if she has grown a new kind of fingerprint over the ones she’d had since birth.
Next, she lifts her shirt and reveals a tiny patch affixed to her hip from which a thin tube runs to the pump at the waist of her pants. She slowly removes it and readies a new tube, needle and patch. I watch as the insulin cartridge starts pumping clear liquid through the tube that then dribbles out the tiny needle about to enter Laura’s body. The needle and patch are loaded into a plastic receptacle, and with a loud snap, the needle enters—this time a little higher and closer to her belly button—and the patch seals itself to her skin, holding it all in place for the next three days.
INSTANTLY, LAURA BECOMES, IN MY MIND,MUCH BRAVER THAN I.
When Laura was 4, she and her mother would regularly walk to preschool. Part of that walk was a steep hill, which Laura had a very difficult time climbing. Her mother found it odd given the frequency with which they took this walk, so she scheduled an appointment with Laura’s pediatrician. After hearing the story, the doctor poked Laura’s little finger, squeezed it until blood emerged and let a small piece of paper soak it up.
When he returned he had a startling message for the mother and daughter: “Don’t go home. Go straight to Children’s Hospital where there is a team of specialists waiting to see you.” There, Laura made some early memories most 4-year-olds don’t have: her mother on a payphone, crying as she spoke to Laura’s dad; a steady stream of oranges delivered to her bed so that she could practice how to give a shot; special protein bars to raise her blood sugar.
From that moment on, Laura began living a very different life from most of her classmates: daily visits from her parents to test her blood sugar; food on hand in the event of an emergency; a needle and tube affixed to her side.
But as aware as she was of her difference, her parents went to great lengths to make sure her health issues weren’t isolating.
Laura’s mom started a support group called South Bay Hot Shots, where other young diabetics and their parents could get together and swap stories and helpful advice. When Laura was in middle school, she attended Camp Conrad Chinnock, a diabetes camp for kids to meet friends and learn how to manage their health.
Laura was certainly different from other kids, but at least with diabetes she had found a network of support—something she didn’t realize Type 1 diabetics were without until many years later when she attended a wedding for a close friend. There, she met a woman, and the subject of diabetes came up. Laura learned that this woman was the mother of a Type 1 diabetic and began sharing about her own life for the first time in years. The mother told Laura how isolated her son felt, which didn’t sit well with Laura. She felt that she had to do something, and that’s when “You’re Just My Type” started percolating in Laura’s mind.
When we arrive at Torrance Memorial Medical Center where we’re meeting Ermina, an ER nurse, Laura lifts her hands and shows me they’re shaking. “I’m starting to get low,” she says. After doing a quick calculation of how long it will take to get a portrait of Ermina then drive somewhere for lunch, she decides to pop two sugar tablets to bring her blood sugar back up. Just then, Ermina arrives with unsteady hands as well. She dips her hand into her bag where her glucose meter is, quickly pricks her finger and feeds her blood into the machine. Her blood sugar level is within normal range, so she’s unsure what to do and decides to wait and see if having her photo taken is making her nervous.
If nerves are the reason for her shaking hands, Laura’s empathy is starting to put them at ease. She snaps several photos—Ermina in the hospital waiting room, Ermina outside by a fountain with an ambulance in the background, Ermina standing a little closer to the ambulance. All the while, the ER nurse is waving to colleagues, eagerly telling them what she’s participating in. Ermina is clearly very happy to help, revealing the fondness that Type 1 diabetics have for each other. Before she goes, she lets Laura know that later in the week she is headed to Strong On Insulin Group, a once-a-month support group for diabetics in Santa Monica, and offers to share “You’re Just My Type” with the group to find more participants. With every portrait, the project is exponentially growing.
LAURA’S DEFINITELY GOT TO EAT NOW, SO WE SET OFF FOR TACOS—IT’S TUESDAY, AFTER ALL.
We decide to take the scenic route down Palos Verdes Drive back toward Long Beach after lunch. As we talk, and as I reflect on the minutiae of Laura’s day, the thing I’m beginning to realize about Type 1 is that it’s an unforgiving, unpredictable failure of the body. Someone living with Type 1 has no control or choice in the matter and merely suffers a host of stressful, distracting and painful consequences for the rest of their life.
I ask Laura if she’s ever angry about this, because I know I would be. Laura’s quick “no” betrays the truth of her response; she certainly could go there, and is inclined to, but she works hard not to. So I push her a little more.
I don’t want to get anger involved. It’ll make my body revolt even more,” she says. It’s a wise statement that I’m sure many people with Type 1, or any other invisible illness, have learned to embrace.
When you’re so urgently attuned to your body—what it can and can’t, will and won’t, should and shouldn’t do—there are just some things you have to let go. At the top of that list is wasted energy—like being angry at the hand you’ve been dealt. Instead, as I’ve witnessed Laura do today, that energy is better channeled by optimizing personal health and being a support to others by giving them a voice.
After Laura takes a moment to edit Ermina’s photo and answer an inquiry about another photo shoot, we take a long walk on the beach. Laura and I make a plan to end our day together over Asian food. The Thai place she loves is closed, but we quickly start craving phở and bún. When our food arrives, I can see her eyes scanning the bowl, making quick calculations with her brain, estimating how this will affect her blood sugar. The worry seems to slip her mind once she takes her first bite.
The next day, Laura texts me. Tested before bed. I was 189 and got a small correction. At 3:40 a.m. I sat up and ran to the bathroom to throw up. I was 300. Got a correction and now I’m 163. I must’ve been having a stressful dream that raised my blood sugar.
In other words,