I don’t get sick very often. In the 11 years that I’ve had diabetes, I’ve had many, many, many high and low blood sugars. I’ve many bad health days and many good health days, but I haven’t had very many sick days—as in, sick with a virus or a cold. The one very bad no good bout of sickness I can recall in the past decade, however, was the first week of my year studying abroad in France. I arrived to that country alone, in September 2012, with bright, eager eyes, one suitcase, and pretty much no comprehensible French language skills. I knew no one in the entire country—entire continent—besides my French study abroad advisor and an American girl, Dana, I met in the Madrid airport who was also headed to my program. That first night in France, Dana and I drank red wine under the southern French sky and I remember looking up at the stars and exclaiming to her, This is just the beginning. I’d never felt so free, so elated, so overwhelmed and sure I’d made the right decision, in my life.

We had two free weeks before classes began. Those first few days, Dana and I wandered around the cobblestone streets of Aix-en-Provence, eating crêpes, meeting other foreign exchange students, and trying to string French sentences together, horrifying everyone with our terrible accents.

About five days in, I started to feel sick: weak and hot and cold and lead-headed and just generally terrible. I spent a few days drinking a lot of tea and hoping things would clear up on their own, because I did not have the language skills to even navigate a drug store, and I also didn’t know where a drug store was.

Alas, my tea-prayers did not work, and a few days in, I woke up with pink eye.

I emailed my mildly helpful study abroad advisor, and asked her what I should do. She sent me the address to the closest walk-in clinic. It was a 30-minute walk. (To be fair, everything was a 30-minute walk from my dorm.) But apparently, I had no other options. My new friend, Annie, an exchange student from Canada, went with me.

We circled the streets trying to find the place, and after showing a few people the scrap of paper I’d written the address down on, we landed at an obscure building on a side street near a French university. Something else to note about the south of France: every building is obscure, and basically every street is a side street.

We opened the door and entered a windowless room. The room was lined with chairs, much like a normal waiting room, but there was no reception area. No sign-in sheet, no ticket machine, nothing. After bumbling around in confusion for a few minutes, we just took a seat and figure we’d wait to see what happened (this turned out to be something we did a lot in various situations.) There were a few other people waiting—a young couple, a mother with her child, a man by himself. After ten minutes or so, a door opened from the corner of the room, and a man and woman emerged. The woman said Merci and left, while the man—the doctor—stood waiting with the door open. The young couple got up and went with him. The same happened with the mother and child, then the man. We realized people just waited their turn, then went. They were trusted with this responsibility. What a concept.

When it was my turn, Annie stayed in the waiting room and I took her portable French dictionary with me into the doctor’s office. I’d Google Translated some medical phrases I thought I might need to know, so I brought those, too, on a sheet of paper folded in my pocket. Very luckily, the doctor spoke English.

The office was normal, clean, organized. Like a doctor’s office one would find in the states, only his also had a desk space—half doctor’s office, half principal’s office. After he examined me and declared, yes, pink eye caused by an untreated viral infection (I didn’t mention all that hopeful tea I’d treated with), we went over to his desk where, because I’d only been in France for a week and didn’t yet have la Sécurité sociale (health insurance) I paid 20 euros out-of-pocket for the appointment. 20 euros! And he was apologetic. God bless socialized medicine.

Annie and I then navigated the pharmacy, where there also happened to be an English speaking pharmacist working. I got my medicine. I paid barely anything for it. I took it. I got better.

I got back to being obliterated on a daily basis by how perfect Aix was, how delicious the baguettes and pain au chocolat and red wine were, how frequent and fresh and bustling the open air markets were, how gorgeous the mountain-view was from my bedroom window. I learned the language, I learned the city. I reminded myself that I’d brought myself to this beauty.


A few months later, when I still didn’t have la Sécurité sociale (French paperwork moves at a glacial pace) and I was about to run out of insulin, I knew what to do. I knew where to go. I’d navigated the French healthcare system once, and I did it again. And again later, when my French speaking skills were stronger and so was I, thankfully, as none of the doctors or pharmacists spoke English this time around.

All of this to say: life with diabetes presents unexpected, unimaginable challenges.

So does life with any human body.

Always with me, I carry my glucose meter, test strips, insulin, syringes, pen needles, juice boxes, granola bars, glucose tablets. I am as diabetically-prepared as I know how to be.

And still, the unexpected arises. All I know to do is rise to meet it when it comes.

This post is part of Diabetes Blog Week 2017.

Today’s prompt is: Diabetes and The Unexpected

Diabetes can sometimes seem to play by a rulebook that makes no sense, tossing out unexpected challenges at random. What are your best tips for being prepared when the unexpected happens?  Or, take this topic another way and tell us about some good things diabetes has brought into your, or your loved one’s, life that you never could have expected?

Still, the unexpected arises. was originally published on Coffee & Insulin

(picture taken in Morocco, 2013) 

Before I was instructed to inject hypodermic needles into my own tender skin, the nurse let me practice on oranges.

With my left thumb and forefinger, I pinched an inch of the fruit’s flesh, and with my right, slid the thin needle into its pulp, pressed down the plunger, and injected two units of saline. After three more rounds of practice, the nurse gently took the oranges away. She handed me a fresh, orange-capped syringe. I shifted in my hospital bed so that my gangly, pre-teen legs were straight out in front of me.

Soon, I’d learn that there are various places a person with diabetes can inject insulin: upper arm, stomach, hips. My first spot was my upper left thigh. Trembling, I pinched my flesh, like I had the fruit. Determined to do what I must to save my own life. My hospital room smelled like citrus all night.


This past year has been almond butter, popcorn, La Croix. Minestrone soup, coffee with cream. Not much. A lot of air.

23 was Amsterdam: pasta carbonara, aged gouda cheese. Yogurt on granola. Translating Dutch in the grocery store, balancing bags on my bicycle handles. Learning to cook perfect hamburgers for a family of four. Belgian beers.

22 was senior year: roasted brussels sprouts, vegetable omelets with hot sauce, bottles of red wine while writing literary critiques.

21 was France: chunks of brie on fresh baguettes, ratatouille crêpes from the underground shop. Too much Nutella, never enough Nutella. French wine: red, white, rosé, depending on the weather and time of day. Street food in the 12 countries I traveled.

20, 19: Cheese quesadillas. Whatever booze someone would buy me.

18: Perfecting the water-to-grain ratio of brown sugar instant oatmeal, prepared in my dorm room microwave. Dining hall salads, or whatever else was vegetarian. Red cups of bright fruit juice mixed with cheap vodka, poured by frat bros. I lost 8 pounds that year.

15, 16, 17: Jager bombs, beer bongs, various fruit-flavored rum. Buffalo chicken bites and cups of ranch from the Irish-themed burger joint I worked at, where older men told me I should smile more, before making their way to the bar.

14, the year of my diagnosis: turkey and cheese sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise, cups of vanilla pudding, boxes of apple juice. The year I first drank alcohol: airplane bottles of Smirnoff, warm Natty Lights we got from someone’s older brother, taking a sip, passing it around.

My childhood, from 5 to 13, was artichokes with lemon-butter. Sometimes cups of raspberries, and other things, depending upon which of my parents I was with that night. Mondays and Tuesdays with Mom. Every other Wednesday with Dad, and every Thursday. Every other Friday, Saturday and Sunday with Mom. Back and forth like that, with my pink duffle bag. The way I know how to live: adaptively, in motion, a baby bird taking flight.

They would call me as I re-packed my bag at the other’s house, and ask me what I wanted for dinner that night.

I never quite knew. I said artichokes, my answer consistent, familiar. Whatever I hungered for, it was always the same.