Marc H. Blatstein

The "Can Dos" vs. the "Can't Dos" of Diabetes

As a child of 11, the words "You can't do that" were part of my-and every other child's-vocabulary. Those words took on new meaning for me in September of 1961. That's when I was diagnosed with diabetes. That's when I was told I couldn't eat cake, candy or ice cream, that I couldn't compete in sports with the rest of the guys; and that I wouldn't lead a normal life.

I learned a valuable lesson at this time from Dr. Robert Kay of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He taught me how to laugh in sprite of my diabetes. And, he instilled in me the "can dos" of living with diabetes. The more someone told me I couldn't do something, the more resolved I became to prove them wrong. "I can do it," became my mantra.

"Believe Me--I Can Do It!"

Like other teenage boys, I was overzealous, rebellious and daredevil. My diabetes only magnified those characteristics. I knew that one way or another I was going to do whatever I set my mind to.

When I wanted to join the basketball league, my mother questioned my decision. I also remember my father's friends asking if I'd be "okay". I knew I would be okay, but I had to convince everyone else of that. I made the team, but I had to continually urge the coach to let me get some court time. When I was of the court, it seemed as if he were praying that I wouldn't get a low blood sugar and pass out. I did pass out. Twice. But that didn't stop me. Before each game I would get psyched by repeating the words, "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it." I became my own cheering section and it worked. I also pushed myself beyond m limits and paid the price.

If you remember, blood sugar testing wasn't available in 1963. There was only urine testing. You know as a 13-year-old, I wasn't going to go through the embarrassing procedure of testing my urine. Once during a very brutal period of play, I felt myself getting a little dizzy. I ignored it because I had drunk orange juice before the game. I felt my blood sugar was okay and it just exhaustion. A few minutes later they said I passed out. All that I remember is waking up on the floor, under the net, with a nasty bruise on the back of my head and a searing headache.

My stubbornness cost me a coupe of bruises and a lost period of play, but during the third period I got back in the game, played hard and with luck on our side we won. My "I can do it" attitude paid off.

When I was 16, I went out for junior varsity football and track. I was six feet tall and 210 pounds.

"I can do it!"

After about four weeks of practice and many bruises and abrasions, I decided football wasn't for me. Then it was time to get serious about track. Again my mother and coach weren't happy with my decision.

Before I started practicing, my mother called Dr. Kay to get his opinion. He said "Marc's a normal 16-year-old boy who needs to take a few extra steps to keep himself healthy. He also needs to feel like the rest of the guys. He can do it." Yes!

My first track meet was a disaster. I was supposed to tun the mile against five other guys, and I had been practicing hard for weeks. Before going to the starting line, I drank my orange juice so that my coach would let me start. We lined up, the coach blew the whistle and we were off. I ran like a bat out of hell, but the it all went downhill. After the second lap, I couldn't focus on staying in my lane. Lap three was a struggle, and I was losing ground. I don't even remember lap four. When I woke up in the nurse's office, she was injecting a glucose solution into my vein and the coach was picking stones out of my knees and wiping the blood from my face. I had passed out and fallen flat on my face.

"Oh well--I still can do it."

I could have quit that day, but I didn't. And luckily I wasn't asked to leave the team. Thanks, coach.

Learning to Believe in Myself

I don't want you to think my attitude was always so positive. Many times I felt like giving in or giving up because I had diabetes. In my later teens, I also used it more and more as a crutch. My "I can do it" mentality wavered. It came to a head in the summer of 1969 when my best friend Barry and I enrolled in summer courses at a college in Artesia, New Mexico. During my teen years, my endocrinologist suggested I see a psychologist to help me work out some of the angst and anger I felt about living with diabetes. His name was Dr. Barney Dlin. In my eyes he was a saint. He listened, counseled, supported and coached me to achieve emotional, as well as physical, health. Thank you, Dr. Dlin.

Now back to New Mexico. Barry and I signed up for all the normal college coursed, such as math, science and a foreign language, but they also offered some non-traditional courses. We signed up for one called "Man and His Elements." Little did we know that the instructor for this was a former Marine sergeant.

Still I said, "I can do it."

I got more than I bargained for. The eight-week course was designed to strengthen us emotionally and physically for the ultimate challenge-a three-day survival course in the mountains of New Mexico, with only C-rations. a tent and a knife.

"I can handle it--I think."

Our daily training included a five-mile run at dawn, multiple series of circuit weight training, push-ups, sit-ups, ropes, etc. The instructor wasn't just a Marine, he was an absolute dictator. There were 12 participants in this course, eight guys and four girls. I was the only one with diabetes.

Our eight-week training went slowly. Many times I told our fearless leader/dictator I couldn't continue because I had diabetes. Each time he told me, "I'm not going to let you quit because you have a disease. Maybe you will never be a Marine in the Corps, but I'm going to help you achieve the Marine attitude and toughness."

"Great--he thinks I can. I think I can't."

We left for our fateful journey in the mountains of New Mexico on a 100-degree Friday in August. I was feeling excited, scared, doubtful and vulnerable. For the first time that summer I wanted to desperately be back with my family and friends in Philadelphia. That morning we were driven out to the mountain range and dropped off with no running water, no McDonald's and no music. My life was over. Was going to die; I couldn't do this.

The coach told me that I was the first person with diabetes to train for this course, and assured me that he wasn't going to let me fail. He would help me overcome the roadblocks that were stopping me. He was determined to see me through this. It wasn't until later I realized why.

When we made camp he warned us about many things. One was what to do if we saw a bear, ("Oh, my..."), how to deal with a snake or tarantula bite ("I'm dead"), and basically how to survive this three-day ordeal.

On our first day we had to climb to get our campsite (I'm now glad for the eight-week strength training) and get to know our surroundings. The second day we had a quick-paced hike, a real short one. Ha! From 7a.m. to 4 p.m., we trudged through, around, up and down the mountain ranges of New Mexico. Water, C-rations, and burning feet, what a life.

At times I would try to stop, of course using diabetes as a crutch. The instructor would give me a candy bar, physically pick me up, kick me in the butt and say, "Let's go, Blatstein. You're not quitting. There's no turning back now."

That night I collapsed exhausted in my tent. But before dozing off, I was repeating that mantra from my basketball days, "I can do it. I can do it."

The third day was the big test. We had to rock climb for 500 feet, friction climb on all fours for 300 feet, and then rappel 600 feet down the other side of the mountain alongside a waterfall called Sitting Bull Falls.

"What have I gotten myself into?"

The instructor gave us all a pep talk-and added a 15-minute browbeating sermon just for me. I kept telling him I couldn't do it because of my diabetes. He insisted I could because my diabetes had made me tougher.

The rock and friction climbs were tough and scary, but the rappel was bloodcurdling. There I was, standing at the very edge of a 600-foot cliff with nothing but a safety line between me and the ground below. And the safety line wasn't much comfort-we were told it wouldn't stop our fall, but would slow us down so we would live through the impact. Suddenly diabetes wasn't a hurdle at all. This rappel was. I was the last one to go, and I stood at the top of the cliff with my back to the ground, staring at my instructor with tears in my eyes and fear in my heart. Before throwing my rope over the mountainside, he said, "Marc, life is all about hurdles, challenges, roadblocks and fears. Facing the fear that's stopping you now will train you to face the challenges your diabetes and life may put in front of you. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself." And then he said, "Away you go!"

The rappel down was frightening, exhilarating and cleansing at the same time. Halfway down I stopped to catch my breath and to cream out loud, "I can do it! My diabetes will not stop me anymore, ever again."

I reached the bottom to loud applause, a little scratched and bruised, but healed of my "can't dos" forever. My coach and classmates gave me a big hug.

Lessons Learned

This September, I'll mark 36 years of living with diabetes. Over the years, I've faced many challenges from health and from life itself. My three coaches, Dr. Robert Kay, Dr. Barney Dlin, and the Marine sergeant (whose name unfortunately escapes me) all taught me many lessons. Number one: to laugh through the obstacles that diabetes and life can bring. Number two: that I am a full-functioning person and as normal as the next. Number three: there are no failures-just learning experiences. And last but not least, I can do anything I set my mind to do.

Yes, I can. Thank you.

Published March 28, 1999

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