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In 1978, at age 21, I ran away to Hawaii to work on a cruise ship. In those days, I never told anyone that I had diabetes.
To get on the ship, I was required to pass a physical examination, which included a blood test. The results of the random blood sugar reading revealed my secret. I still remember sitting across the desk from the doctor, having to explain why my blood sugar was 343 mg/dl. The truth is, I had no idea, as we didn't have meters in those days. I needed to come up with an explanation fast, or this guy was not going to let me on the ship.
"It must have been a fluke," I told him. I quickly made up some story about partying with my friends on the beach in Waikiki, saying that I must have eaten too much the day before. After some grumbling, he bought it, and I boarded the ship that Saturday.
I look back and wonder how I survived that job. It was a grueling schedule of serving three meals a day, plus a midnight buffet, to demanding passengers. The passengers' food looked very tasty, but we were forbidden to eat it. We had our own menu and dining room downstairs. We were offered lots of rice and greasy fried pork, but few vegetables or fresh fruits.
A friend of mine was a room steward for passengers on the Sun Deck, where the well-heeled stayed in large, sunny rooms. He mentioned that a man with diabetes was staying on this deck. He had to retrieve the man's insulin from a refrigerator and bring it to him twice a day. My friend also noticed some strange looking piece of equipment beside his bed for testing his blood. I had never heard of such a thing, and asked if I could see it.
It was against the rules for me to be up in that section of the ship, and I would be in big trouble if I got caught. But, while the passenger was away on an island excursion, we sneaked up a back stairway. My friend checked to see if the coast was clear, and I dashed across the hall into the passenger's room.
Totally in awe, I knelt beside the bed to gaze at this wondrous device on the night stand. I touched it gently. I traced its outlines lightly with my finger and saw that it needed to be plugged into the wall. It had a dial with a swinging needle that looked like a voltage meter, and it must have weighed 6 pounds. As I crept back across the hall and down the many flights of stairs to my own room, I realized that something was missing from my diabetes management.
After a year on the ship, I gave it up for a land job. I also started setting funds aside to buy one of these new machines. It was difficult to find, as only one place in my home town of Sacramento, California, carried such a device. It was $275 and they weren't going to sell it to me without a doctor's prescription. After I had all my paperwork together, they sat me down in the back room to train me. A newer device had just been released, the Ames Dextrometer, a significant improvement from the one I saw on the ship. Battery-powered, it was portable, but several steps were required. You had to push a button, apply blood to a strip, push a button again and wait 60 seconds for a beep. You then had to squirt the blood off the strip with a water bottle and blot the strip. You put this into the meter and got a digital read-out sometime later. Back then, it was quite a marvel.
From Stranger to Friend
The expense of testing was weighing heavily on my waiter's budget. In 1979, 100 strips costs $55, and the restaurant where I worked did not provide health insurance. I soon discovered that I could cut the strips in half, which made surviving on my tips a little easier. A few years later, all the machines were redesigned, and cutting the strips in half wasn't an option. In the midst of these technological changes, my feelings about my meter also changed. No longer did I look at my meter with respectful, distant awe, but grew to see it as my trusted friend.
I've seen many meter changes through the years. Through hard work, fortunately, both my budget and my diabetes control have improved.
I am very proud to present this month's cover story, "Me and My Meter." It gives us a chance to sit back and reflect on the significant advancements that meter engineers have brought us over the last 20 years.