What type 1 diabetes taught this doctor-to-be about medicine, family and life

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Mike Natter, a medical student, writes about the experience of being diagnosed with Type 1 at age 9, and how he learned to cope with it. Mike Natter is in his fourth year of medical school at Sidney Kimmel College of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. Follow him on Instagram: @mike.natter

The screams of another child woke me from a restless sleep. When I opened my eyes, I found tubes and wires stuck all over my 9-year-old body.

"Where am I?" I thought, watching a stretcher wheel by carrying a young boy, head wrapped in bloody gauze.

The last thing I could remember was my father carrying me into the emergency room. It had been months since I slept through the night, because I had to keep getting up to use the bathroom due to the countless glasses of water I was chugging.

Daytime wasn't much better. Either I was falling asleep at my third-grade classroom desk, or asking permission to run to the bathroom.

I was constantly hungry, always eating, and yet my clothes were getting baggier.

This went on through the summer months - until that September afternoon when my frantic father rushed me to the hospital.

I had slipped into a coma. My blood sugar was 1,600 - 16 times the normal level.

My body was consuming itself from the inside, dumping dangerous amounts of acidic by-products into my bloodstream. I had type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease sometimes called juvenile diabetes, though it can strike at any age. In type 1, the pancreas stops producing insulin altogether, unlike in type 2, where insulin resistance develops, usually - but not always - due to lifestyle factors. Type 1 is much more rare, making up about 1 in 30 of all diabetes cases in the United States.

In many ways, a child's diabetes diagnosis means the whole family has the condition. The weeks following my diagnosis were tough on me, but much more so for my parents. They felt guilty, thinking they must have done something wrong, or should have recognized earlier that I was sick.

Then they were furious - first with the pediatrician for not identifying it sooner, then with fate for afflicting their son with a lifelong illness.

Anger eventually melted into acceptance and then motivation as my parents and I began learning what it would mean for our entire family to live with type 1 diabetes.

The once automatic, unconscious process of regulating blood sugar had become an ever-present, full-time job, documented in my parents' careful log books. Every gram of carbohydrate I consumed was counted meticulously. My finger was pricked innumerable times through the day for blood sugar checks. Insulin doses were carefully injected.

While I slept, my parents were up worrying about the low blood sugar I sometimes suffered despite their vigilance. The possible consequences of uncontrolled sugars, they knew, could be dire.

But it got easier. A lot easier. We learned which specific foods and meals worked best for me, how much insulin to take, how exercise or even the time of day might be affecting my blood sugar.

Diabetes stopped dictating our lives and just became a part of it. Even then, there would be days my blood sugar would stay high and others when it would drop low for no apparent reason.

Like most kids, I was used to being told what to do and when to do it. So I don't remember the transition to my new routine being traumatic. It was my new normal.

By age 10, I was becoming significantly more independent with my diabetes care but I still knew my parents were worried. Yet they refused to allow diabetes to limit me. I played competitive basketball. I slept over at friends' houses. I went away to camp. Insulin shots and finger pricks became no more remarkable to me than doing homework and brushing my teeth.

Like most kids I knew, I enjoyed comic books, and loved drawing my own superheroes - who sometimes needed to inject themselves with insulin, just like me.

After college, as I prepared for medical school and learned more about the pathophysiology of type 1, I created a comic book about a diabetic superhero named Captain Langerhans (a play on the type of pancreatic cells that produce insulin).

The purpose of Captain Langerhans was to teach kids about type 1 in terms they could understand - and he also is a tribute to the optimistic spirit my parents instilled in me.

Now, months away from completing medical school, my goal is to become an endocrinologist so I can help others who share my disease. This horrid glitch of biochemistry spawned what I genuinely regard as my calling.

It also reminds me, especially now as I meet new patients in the hospital where I work, that we all struggle with one thing or another. A busted pancreas just happens to be my thing.

I will always be a patient before I am a doctor. I will always know what it feels like to be in that paper gown, gazing in fear at the blur of white coats.

Chronic illness can become a part of life, not the center of it. We adapt, and we continue on because there is no other alternative.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Mike Natter is in his fourth year of medical school at Sidney Kimmel College of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. Follow him on Instagram: @mike.natter