Have you ever watched a television show that dealt in some way with diabetes and found yourself screaming at the screen? This happens to me quite often. It really annoys me when a character, such as Megan Hunt’s daughter on Body of Proof, says, ‘But I’m not fat!” upon learning of her type 1 diabetes diagnosis. Like only fat people get diabetes. Then Megan Hunt says, “It’s not that kind of diabetes.” What does that mean? That all people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes are fat? Tell that to the thousands of people a day who are diagnosed with type 2 or prediabetes and have a BMI within the normal ranges.
I did get a kick out of seeing that she has the same insulin pump as me in a later episode. Hers is pink, but it is basically the same. But, again, I was deeply annoyed by their portrayal of a diabetic in ketoacidosis. Where was the excess thirst, the continuous need to urinate, the dehydration? Where was the vomiting, the seizures? And what kind of insulin was that that Tommy brought Megan? I’ve never seen insulin that came in vials like that.
There have been many shows and movies that have diabetics as main or supporting characters. There was that episode of Drop Dead Diva where Jane got her client off by saying he is diabetic, therefore he would never steal a candy bar. Yeah, like diabetics don’t eat candy…
Panic Room was another. The CGM she wore was awesome, but I don’t think the technology has quite come that far. And again, the portrayal of a diabetic experiencing a low was a little off. And another thing there: wouldn’t that kind of stress make her sugars go up? Not to mention she had pizza for dinner. Every time I have pizza, my sugars go up hours later because of the fat content.
And then there is Steel Magnolias.
Many of the PWDs (mostly type 1s) whose blogs I read love to complain about the betrayal of diabetes in the movie, Steel Magnolias. And I can understand where they are coming from. That’s the movie that implies that Julia Roberts’ character, Shelby, died because she chose to have a baby. Just this morning, I read a blog in which the writer says a friend of his has family members who tell her constantly she is going to end up dying like Julia Roberts. What a horrible thing to say to someone who has only recently been diagnosed!!! What a horrible thing to say to anyone with diabetes!
But, the thing is, I don’t think the portrayal of diabetes in Steel Magnolias is quite as inaccurate as many others I have seen.
Okay, so not all diabetics die from having babies. In fact, women with type 1 diabetes, or type 2, with good health care and tight control of their sugars, can have as many children as they would like. However, diabetics with preexisting complications could place themselves at risk for further complications or even death if they choose to have children.
It is a fact.
In the movie, it is said that Shelby has been told not to have children because of her kidneys. One could assume from this that she already had damage to her kidneys because of the diabetes. Or perhaps from some other cause. The excess blood volume in pregnancy could have caused further difficulties with her kidneys. This is not unreasonable or out of the realm of possibility. One should remember that this movie is set in the eighties when diabetes care was vastly different than it is now.
I had trouble with my kidneys during my fourth pregnancy. It was unrelated to my diabetes, but it could have left me with permanent damage, or even killed me, none the less.
In the movie, the viewer is never really told what caused Shelby’s collapse and subsequent death. One would assume it was kidney failure brought on by the combination of her diabetes and the stress of her pregnancy. But it could have been something else. One could also assume it was brought on by a severe low blood sugar that left her severely brain damaged. Shelby did experience a low blood sugar at the beginning of the movie. The symptoms were different (they were wildly dramatic at the first of the movie–maybe a little too dramatic) but it is possible for a low to sneak up on someone and for the symptoms to change from low to low. Or it could have been one of a number of other complications of diabetes. Or it could have been something totally unrelated to her diabetes. The viewer just does not know.
My only complaint with the way diabetes is portrayed in the movie Steel Magnolias, besides the failure to mention the cause of Shelby’s final collapse, is that they never show Shelby checking her blood sugar (granted, this was still fairly uncommon in the eighties) or taking an insulin shot. In fact, her diabetes is rarely even dealt with in the movie except for the low at the beginning and her fight with her mother over her decision to have a child.
I guess my point here is why do people complain so much about the portrayal of diabetes in Steel Magnolias, but applaud shows like Body of Proof when it is clearly inaccurate and embracing public misinformation (as one of my favorite blogs did–praising the diagnosis episode of Body of Proof even though it had several glaring inaccuracies beyond the quip about diabetics being fat). Is it because Steel Magnolias deals with the complications of diabetes and the real possibility of death?
Fear is a real part of this diabetes diagnosis, for everyone, type 1s, type 2s, and those who love them. Does that give us a right to hide behind fear to allow the perpetuation of ignorance?
I don’t think so.