Dealing with Diabetes: A Daughter’s Perspective

My father gave me the support I needed when I began to explore my world on two feet.

He signed up for “Daddy and me” soccer, swayed with me during those dreadfully awkward father-daughter dances, and cheered me on in all my academic and athletic pursuits.

 
My dad, supporting me in my early years. We were apple-picking.

My dad, supporting me in my early years. We were apple-picking.

 

“Stevie Wonder”— as his four daughters called him — had always been a generous provider and fierce protector of his family. He worked long hours as an Emergency Room physician, much to his blood pressure’s distress, and always volunteered to stay later or pick up extra shifts. He made sure we were comfortable and happy, whatever the cost.

Life continued on, but I noticed my parents’ marriage splinter once my eldest sister went off to college. The divorce hurt, but to my horror, I saw my father’s health decline slowly at first, and then rapidly in my junior year of college. He had been diagnosed with longstanding diabetes the year prior, and in one year had a series of four syncopal, or fainting, episodes. His last fall occurred just as he was walking into the hospital for a ten-hour shift, but instead of saving lives that day, it was his life that needed saving.  

He was admitted but quickly transferred to a larger hospital for a cardiac catheterization. The cardiologist snaked a thin wire up through his groin and into his overworked heart’s chambers, which showed a depressing picture: three out of the four major coronary arteries were over 80% occluded and he was in congestive heart failure. Stevie Wonder, father of four, would need open heart surgery at the age of 56.

 
I recall the many walks along the beach in our favorite NJ shore spot, Cape May.

I recall the many walks along the beach in our favorite NJ shore spot, Cape May.

 

The cardiothoracic surgeon did a marvelous job: he cut pieces of blood vessels from other parts of my father’s leg and chest, sewed them around the clogged arteries, and watched his heart pump to a healthier rate and rhythm once he was done. My father spent the holidays in the hospital, but he regained strength and was ready for discharge after a few weeks. His return home proved difficult for everyone, especially my mother, who refused to abandon her ex-husband.

Diabetes had ravaged not only his kidneys, forcing him into peritoneal dialysis, but also his eyes. High blood sugar can result in diabetic retinopathy, or destruction of the blood vessels in the back of the eye, and is lead cause of blindness. At this point, my dad’s daily regimen was overwhelming: medications three times a day, cardiac rehabilitation, and countless doctors appointments, now clouded in a veil of semi-darkness. My mother was doing the majority of the work while also providing care to her daughters. Several years later, I asked why she agreed to help him, despite their divorce.

“Your father worked very hard most of his life for us,” she explained. She had been angry at him for neglecting his health, but she made me understand: “He is human and we make mistakes.”

My father’s decline happened just as I was finishing college and I felt guilty for not being around as much as I could. I spent most weekends home and tried to relieve some of the caretaking burdens from my mother. We walked the mall as per his doctor’s recommendations to continue rehabilitating his newly-revitalized heart. I checked his blood pressure before we left the house. I made sure his sugars were in range and we kept track of his weight to make sure his dialysis machine was doing its job.

It took many months, but Stevie Wonder made a wonderful recovery.

His vision improved to the point where he could drive locally, his diabetes was well controlled, and now he could walk over three miles without stopping at the mall. All seemed right in the world until my mother discovered a gaping wound at the back of my father’s heel.

 
My dad’s diabetic foot ulcer, the day it was first noticed.

My dad’s diabetic foot ulcer, the day it was first noticed.

 

When I saw the wound, it looked like a two-inch wide cave opening leading straight to hell. My father had diabetic peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage caused by chronically high sugar which distorts a person’s ability to sense pain or pressure in the legs and feet. His podiatrist recommended that he limit his walking and refrain from wearing shoes with any backing. When I visited the podiatrist with my father, he told me that diabetic foot ulcers are the leading cause of amputations in the United States. My sisters, my mom, and I refused to let this become my father’s reality. Stevie Wonder was committed, all the same.

It took six weeks for his wound to fully heal. We all took turns cleaning his wound since he couldn’t reach behind his heel. As I applied the dressing and gauze, I would think back to the times my father lifted me up after I fell on roller skates in our driveway, or carried me from the car to our couch when I sprained my ankle in a soccer game. I never imagined the roles would reverse so early on in our lives.

Thankfully, diabetic disaster was avoided.

My father’s wound healed, in large part to him and his family’s diligence. He is still at risk for developing an ulcer, and I worry about him constantly. I worry about his eyes, his feet, and all the other organs diabetes has targeted over these past several years.

And yet, while this seems like a depressing diabetic tale, it is not. My father, while supportive and present, sealed himself away from his family during those stressful years in the emergency room. Through his illness, we have all become closer and more appreciative of our health. We look out for one another, we care for each other, and when illness strikes again, we will be ready knowing what we have seen, heard, and felt before.

 
Stevie Wonder and his fleet of daughters, circa winter 2019.

Stevie Wonder and his fleet of daughters, circa winter 2019.