It was August 1974 and my mother, two younger brothers and I had been living in The Basin since before winter had started. This was the first house my mother had found to rent since we had needed to move away from the family home. My parents had split and, being the 70’s, my newly single mother was finding it difficult finding a landlord who would trust her to pay the rent. Today we think back to the 70’s with a warm, cosy feeling of nostalgia for a world more innocent and burnt orange kitchens. But for a single woman with young children, it could be, and was, a tough place.
The Basin sits at the base of The Dandenongs, the iconic collection of hills to the east of Melbourne. If you wanted to find somewhere that suffered all of the hardships associated with winter in Melbourne, you couldn’t go much past The Basin. From late April until early September The Basin was cold, wet and miserable. Sure it held an idyllic charm, almost a faux Swiss / European quaintness, but during those months the “Swiss quaint” was difficult to identify.
As I was now in my final year of high school which, in Australia, was the year when your final exam results dictated if you could go to university or not, and therefore your future direction in life, moving schools was not even discussed, let alone considered. It went without saying that I would need to make the daily journey from The Basin to Mitcham, where my high school for the past five and a half years was. This involved either catching a bus to the nearest station, or walking the three kilometres, then catching the suburban train to Mitcham, then walking another one and a half kilometres to the school. At the end of the day, the reverse journey was required of course. So on any given day of the week I could find myself walking for up to nine kilometres, often in the dark, through rain and hail and icy wind, to and from school.
Add to this picture the underlying emotional upheaval of having your family gradually fall apart and for a seventeen year old, something was bound to give.
The Young Diabetic in Cubicle 3
“Yes doctor, the young diabetic in cubicle 3” said the nurse as she talked with one of the doctors in the emergency ward of Box Hill Hospital. My mother and I weren’t silly; we knew which cubicle we were sitting in.
This was how I found out that my life, my world, my existence had changed forever. There was no going back from this moment.
All my mother and I knew about diabetes up to that point was the same as most people back then, and to this day, and that is that it involved injections; lots of them. With just the two of us huddled away in the cubicle, the news that came drifting over the partition left me shell shocked. My mother, with all of the upheavals and dramas that she had endured over the years, especially over the last twelve months as a single mother of three boys, had learned to grit her teeth and take the slap as she had so many times before. But for me, a seventeen year old teenager, this was a shock too far. I burst into tears.
After what seemed like an eternity, the doctor came sweeping in with his entourage in tow. His white coat was open and ballooning at the back. His entourage included a junior doctor, a student doctor and a nurse, all of whom had clip boards in the crook of their arm. The nurse was frantically writing down instructions; the student was scribbling notes desperately and the junior doctor was reading aloud from his clip board. Even though we’d only spoken with the receptionist as we entered the hospital and the nurse as she took some blood from my arm earlier, I had apparently already built up a medical history that stretched across a number of pages.
Being the 70’s, doctors were still considered by most people to be demi-gods, beyond being questioned. They were the ones with the years of university and experience, so their word was beyond us mere mortals. My mother and I sat there as they all talked amongst themselves, almost as if we weren’t even there. The nurse took notes, the student doctor remained silent and in the background, except to acknowledge that he had made note of the latest pearl of wisdom from the senior doctor, and the junior doctor quietly read information aloud from his clip board, answering the senior doctor’s clipped queries.
Suddenly, with virtually no warning, the senior doctor turned his ray of wisdom in our direction. His tone softened a little as he spoke to my mother. He explained in a couple of brief sentences, all the while holding a tone that portrayed that he actually expected my mother to understand everything that he was saying, that I was a very sick lad and that she should have brought me to the hospital sooner. Working on the assumption that my mother was already quite well acquainted with diabetes, he explained in his clipped manner that I would be in hospital for about a week, then having injections for the rest of my life. I would need to follow a strict diet and that, so long as I followed the rules without deviation, I should be able to live relatively well for close to a normal time frame. I would learn the basics of living with “juvenile diabetes” during my week in hospital. Other doctors and nurses would answer any further questions we had.
Only then did he turn to me.
“Well my friend, you have been a very sick fellow, but we’re here to help you get better.” I sat there with my eyes red and puffy from my tears, desperately trying to keep myself under control. Crying in front of this important person was to be avoided, or so I told myself.
“What you have is called Juvenile Onset Diabetes and it’s when your pancreas isn’t making insulin. It is a serious illness, but one that we can manage.”
“How long will I need to have injections for?” I blurted out. “I don’t like injections.”
“Well, that’s something that we will teach you about. You will need to have injections for the rest of your life, but you will learn to get used to them.”
I felt totally gutted. Only this morning I had left home as normal to go to school, but with instructions from my mother to go to see the family doctor on the way home. And now here I was in the emergency ward of a hospital being told that my life had changed forever. How could this all be happening?
As I sat there with my mother, both of us feeling overwhelmed, little did we realise just how radically my life really had changed. In the space of fifteen minutes I had gone from being a typical, if a little bit sickly, seventeen year old, to being a member of an elite group of humans comprising roughly 0.5% of humanity who were living with this chronic illness. So long as I learned all of the rules and took my insulin and ate the right foods at the right times, I could hope to live almost as long as my friends. But if I didn’t learn the rules, or chose not to stick to them closely, I could expect any number of a group of horrible complications that came with the diagnosis.
All I could think as we both sat there in a daze was “Fifteen minutes ago I was normal. Why me?”