February 22, 2019
By Gary VandenBergh

Learning how to manage diabetes is a challenge that most people would find difficult. When presented to people who do not have to do it the response is often, “I could never do that”. Whenever I hear that I respond by saying, “You’d be surprised at what you can do if you have to.” I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1983 when I was 30 and the only way to manage it was with finger stick blood tests and injections of insulin. I was on Multiple Daily Injections (MDI) and when I was first diagnosed I was petrified of needles. You’d be surprised at what you can do if you have to! How does one do it? How do you go from being so afraid of needles that just getting a flu shot generated a full scale panic attack to injecting yourself 3, 4, 5 times a day? Not to mention the finger-stick blood tests. In a word, empathy or more specifically, the understanding I received from my first diabetes educator.

The question then becomes what does empathy have to do with learning how to manage diabetes? Empathy, by definition is, according to Merriam-Webster:  being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. Empathy is the complete understanding of what the patient is up against. It is a deep appreciation for what someone is going through.

When a person receives the traumatic diagnosis of a life-threatening disease they not only need the medical tools necessary to manage the disease, they also need a care-giver that can communicate their understanding and appreciation for the patient’s new paradigm. In the beginning, empathy is more important than giving the patient a litany of do’s and don’ts or detailed instructions for living in the patient’s new reality. A warm touch or communicating a deep understanding helps a patient to integrate all the new details of successful diabetes management into their life.

To illustrate the importance of empathy in education I can tell you when I was first diagnosed I had two very different people introduce me to the trials and tribulations of dealing with this new truth. The first person was a hardened nurse who had very little patience for a frightened newcomer to the world of diabetes. I remember that she handed me a syringe and told me to fill it and inject myself while she watched. Something I had never done before. My fear of needles was playing a very big part in this situation and I hesitated. Partly because I was very unsure of how, exactly, to fill a syringe and then plunge that needle into my stomach. I sat there for a long time and she was growing impatient and she finally said, “Honey, you’ll be sticking yourself for the rest of your life, you might as well start right now.” I was devastated. I froze. She walked over, took the syringe from my hand and stuck it into me. I learned nothing and I was further traumatized by her callous attitude toward me.

The next day a seasoned diabetes educator came in to see how I was doing. She sat on the edge of my bed and talked with me. She asked me about my life, my family, my hopes and dreams for the future. At that point, I did not have a very positive outlook for my future. She saw this and immediately took my hand and said, “Listen, 1983 is a good year to get diabetes. There are so many advances being made and if you can keep this under control for a while I am sure a cure is just on the horizon.” Granted, the cure is still elusive but in that moment she gave me hope, she validated my feelings, appreciated how much I loved and needed my family and understood what I was going through just by her presence and interest in me as a person.

From that day on I had hope. I felt understood and it instilled in me a positive attitude toward diabetes that I carry with me to this day. She opened the door for me to understand diabetes, deal with diabetes and successfully manage this beast of a disease while I wait and hope for a cure. I credit her empathy with instilling in me a desire and ability to do everything in my power to learn about the future of diabetes care. To further educate myself and to be sure that I stayed around long enough to welcome all the technological advances that have made managing diabetes a tolerable task in my everyday life. Empathy was the key to my education!

Gary VandenBergh
Executive Director
The Diabetes Project

Gary VandenBergh, a career broadcast television professional, began The Diabetes Project to document his journey through life with type 1 diabetes. Gary is an advocate for tightly managing diabetes while continuing to live an active, full, healthy life. Gary has combined the two things he knows best, television and diabetes, to produce informative, compelling content about successfully managing diabetes.