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Crossroads attorney documents life with diabetes in book chapter

Feb. 2, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 1, 2013 at 8:02 p.m.


Resources are available. Call 1-800-DIABETES for free information about food, insulin, medicines and more.

To purchase copies

of either "My Sweet Life: Successful Men With Diabetes" or "My Sweet Life: Successful Women With Diabetes," visit phcpublishing.com, Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com. A portion of the books' proceeds go to the American Diabetes Association.

John Griffin PROFILE

Griffin was diagnosed with diabetes in 1997 and, in the years since, has fought to educate others and work for a cure. He offered advice to others diagnosed with disease.

Griffin encouraged people to talk with loved ones and others with diabetes, read up on the disease and accept the way they feel. Feelings of depression, guilt and frustration are common following a diagnosis.

He also advised people to take every opportunity to have their blood checked and know what they're up against. Part of the human condition is not wanting to hear bad news, he said, but the disease wins when people ignore it.

Keeping an eye on blood sugar levels can make all the difference, he says.

"Mine's 107," he said with a smile and glance down at the insulin pump on his hip. "So I'm having a good day."

For more information

on Beverly S. Adler, editor of "My Sweet Life: Successful Men With Diabetes," visit AskDrBev.com. Adler works in New York as a clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator.

Excerpt: Diabetes and the Law, John Griffin's chapter in 'My Sweet Life: Successful Men With Diabetes'

There we sat, on June 17, 1997, in our living room. I was thirsty and retrieved yet another glass of water. My wife had noticed this repeated pattern: go to the kitchen then to the bathroom. So I said, "Maybe I have diabetes?"

Lynn said "John, you're having sympathy symptoms after being with your sister." Both my sister and her youngest daughter have type 1 diabetes. Still sensing that something was wrong, I said, "We can easily figure this out; I will go to the drug store to get one of those meters my sister has." Off I went. I brought the meter home, pricked my finger and let the drop of blood absorb into the strip; then I waited for the number to appear. And there it was: 486 mg/dL!

"So what?" we thought. But when we researched the meaning of that single number, I said, "Lynn, I have diagnosed myself with diabetes." I paged my physician, and he called me back. After I read him the results, he ordered me to come into his office the next day at 8 a.m. and not to eat anything until after my appointment.

When I arrived at his office, the kind physician checked my blood sugar level and promptly said, "Well, you have diabetes, John. There are lots of ways to manage it, so let's get you trained." He gave me some medicine and ordered me to stay off alcohol and big meals for a month. "This is no big deal.

Diabetes dwells differently in each of the twenty-six million American children and adults who have it. I soon realized that it was much easier for me to manage diabetes than it was for some people, and that had little to do with education, discipline, or socio-economic factors. I saw people with all manner of outcomes: a blind, brilliant forty-year-old lawyer, his sight gone;; a ninety-year-old man who lived complication-free after eighty-six years of diabetes.

The burden that diabetes inflicts is a silent one. Many people, simply because of who they are, suppress diabetes, subconsciously believing that suppressing it will make them feel more "normal." As the years go by, these people are happy, all the while paying little attention to their blood sugar values. But, little by little, the tiniest blood vessels in their kidneys, eyes, and extremities are being destroyed.

In 1997, I was a newly diagnosed person, still unafraid of the world and of diabetes. Yet the tragedy of bright and passionate people afflicted with amputations, blindness, kidney dialysis, and needless deaths still troubles me to this day.

A burst of energy carried me through nutritional counseling, carbohydrate counting, and blood glucose monitoring. Then, over the next several days, a gray pall came over me. Something was wrong. I felt no joy, and I wanted to be alone. While we were visiting my mother-in-law, my wife suggested that I take our three small daughters to one of their favorite places, a bookstore. While they gleefully searched for ways to spend their book money, I wandered down the aisle, looking for books on diabetes.

The girls and I headed back to the house with a bag full of books. As I dove into them, it became apparent to me that the journey of life with diabetes often begins with a path through some depression and anxiety. As my eyes passed over those words, they welled with tears that flowed freely for a few minutes. And I was not alone, and not narcissistic just because of these feelings. I realized that other people have walked this path, and it was okay to feel this way.

Yet a pattern developed over the next few weeks. Many well-meaning friends asked me, "Aren't you glad it's not cancer?" or "Aren't you glad you can control it with diet and medicine and exercise?" "Of course." But no, I was not glad in any sense of the word. I began to mope around the house, avoiding social situations where I would have to interact with others. One day, my wife insisted we attend a museum opening. "No!" I said. "I don't feel like it." She insisted, so I glumly went with her, knowing that there would be awkward conversation, no wine, and no good food. At the museum, a neighbor from across the street approached me with the time-honored greeting: "How are you, John?" I said, ""Not so good since I can't drink, can't eat good food, and got diagnosed with diabetes." She looked at me, gave me a hug, and said, "John, that's such a drag!" At her remarkable honesty, I burst into tears, thanking her profusely. That encounter changed the trajectory of the journey. It was what it was: guilt or no guilt. Acceptance was important.

The journey took me from managing with diet and medicine, then with diet alone, then with medicines again, and then hearing the dreaded news: "You must go on insulin, John." It was so weird to travel back to that feeling of failure: Other people can do it without insulin, so why can't a successful lawyer do it? Three years after diagnosis, my wife and I sat in our bedroom with the insulin pen dialed up to the proper dose, and once again, as diabetes so often brings about, the tears flowed. It seems paradoxical that insulin, a literal life saver, can cause such grief and feelings of worthlessness, but it did. Now insulin is my friend.

In 1994, a couple came to my office for a consultation. The husband explained that he had lost his job as a UPS driver because he had diabetes and was ordered to go on insulin or be hospitalized. UPS had a blanket ban on any drivers who managed diabetes with insulin. Of course, I didn't have diabetes, and I knew next to nothing about employment law. I looked for some sort of non-profit organization dedicated to diabetes, and I found the American Diabetes Association (ADA). It turned out that the Association helped fight this sort of discrimination, and I was referred to a volunteer in San Antonio.

The volunteer was a feisty endocrinologist who taught at the medical school, conducted research, and treated patients: a "triple threat," he called himself. The client had no money, but this doctor said, ""Tell him to come to San Antonio, and I will help him for no charge." Inviting us into his office, the doctor said, in his own salty way, that the UPS ban made no sense, and it kept good people out of jobs that they were perfectly able to do. He would write a report and show the federal judge how wrong and unnecessary that ban was. He felt that people should be judged individually, not lumped into groups. He was brimming with confidence. It was almost mystical.

When the federal judge read his report, he ruled in our favor, saying that the time for blanket bans was over. UPS would not let my client drive, but it paid him a good settlement and promoted him into management. Years later, UPS further altered its restrictive policies toward workers with diabetes, but even now, there is work to do to make UPS a better employer for people with diabetes.

I will never forget that young UPS worker in my office. I told him to be sure to monitor his blood sugar to prove that he was well managed. His eyes filled with tears, and he said, "We have a baby, and we can't afford test strips because they cost a dollar per strip."

Now, of course, since I, too, am walking that path, I would weep right along with that client sharing his story. A few months after the successful resolution with UPS, the father of a young college graduate called me when he heard about the UPS worker from fellow volunteers with the American Diabetes Association. His son had type 1 diabetes and was offered a job as a police officer, but when the department discovered that he had diabetes, it revoked the offer. That call began a seven-year journey through the federal courts, and it built a friendship that has lasted to this day.

It was during that seven-year journey that diabetes afflicted me, causing my wife to note that this was taking client empathy too far. Of course, nobody thinks it will take seven years to finish a legal case. Twice the federal judge tossed the police-officer case out of the court system without a trial. Why? Because, as I learned, some courts held that all people with insulin-treated diabetes were dangerous to humanity. The City of San Antonio forbade anyone with insulin-treated diabetes to be police officers, and it took seven long years until the court ruled that each person with diabetes should be evaluated individually. There was a great celebration and a picture of Jeff Kapche and me on the cover of Diabetes Forecast. We thought the world had changed.

A few years later, my hero, Jeff Kapche, gave another seven years of his life to breaking down another blanket ban-this one from the FBI. It took a jury trial and an appeal in 2012 to confirm this wall tumbling down. Now, men and women who want to be Special Agents can do so without fear of being banned as they once were. And we have opened even more doors for them, such as with the State Department, which for decades would not hire those with insulin-treated diabetes as Foreign Service Officers. Now the first two are serving-one in the Czech Republic and one in Haiti.

But we also learned more about challenges. We learned that children with diabetes were being rounded up and sent to separate schools, away from their normal schools. We attacked that, and we are winning those battles.

These challenges, along with those surrounding better care and a cure for this disease, empowered me to become more involved with the ADA. Serving as Chair of the National Board of Directors in 2011 allowed me to testify in Congress, seeking funds for a cure and better diabetes treatment and oppose discrimination against our diabetes community.

Yet during those years, I sometimes suppressed diabetes, just like the millions of other people who do this. Shortly before joining the ADA's Executive Committee, my A1c was hovering above 8%. This was a point of embarrassment.

So I went to the office of a therapist friend of mine, yearning to find out why this was happening. As the conversation unfolded, I revealed that on Friday nights, diabetes would "disappear" from my life. Of course, eating Mexican food and not injecting insulin was a recipe for very high glucose values and blood sugar management disaster. The rest of each weekend would focus on trying to correct these issues. I told the therapist that, for those hours with my friends, I refused to count tortilla chips and carbohydrates.

He asked, ""Why do you suppose you do that, John?"

I considered that question, then burst into tears: "I just wanted, for one night a week, to be like everybody else." That longing feeling can still make my eyes well with tears, and when I think of small children who just want to be like their peers, I often weep for them as well.

My friend the therapist then asked if I thought I was defeating the disease by blotting it out for those hours. I said that I guessed that was the way I felt. He then asked if I thought that was right. Of course, at that point, I knew it was wrong. There is no "holiday."

That was true for me with my own diabetes as well as for the efforts to reach the ADA's vision: a world free of diabetes and all its burdens. This fifteen-year journey, paradoxically, is one of the most rewarding things to have happened to me in my life. The relationships, the children's smiles, the victories, the young researcher getting her first ADA grant, the walls of exclusion being torn down-all of this has been precious.

It was June 1997 when John Griffin first realized something was wrong.

The Crossroads attorney was thirstier than usual and found himself downing glass after glass of water. Those sips were followed by trips to the bathroom, and the pattern repeated itself.

Griffin suspected the culprit, he said, and confirmed his suspicions with a finger stick and doctor's visit.

He, like 26 million people nationwide and 10,000 in Victoria County alone, was diabetic.

With the emotions that followed, the story isn't easy to tell, Griffin said, but it's one he said he hopes will help others.

Griffin was one of 25 men selected to have his story published in "My Sweet Life: Successful Men with Diabetes." The book, a follow-up to one that focused on women, documents the men's experiences with diagnosis, treatment and acceptance of the disease.

"I was shocked I'd be asked to write a book alongside these guys," he said, noting other contributors were well known in the diabetes community. "I was honored."

Beverly S. Adler, the book's editor, said she learned of Griffin through his work with the American Diabetes Association. With his story and others, the clinical psychologist and certified diabetes educator said her goal was to encourage a more positive attitude among those with diabetes.

"I'm not a Pollyanna, but, even with complications people can still feel positive in the way they manage their diabetes," said Adler, who was diagnosed nearly 38 years ago. "This is an illness we can live with, and live successfully with."

A portion of the books' proceeds will go to the American Diabetes Association.

Griffin's work for the cause began years before his diagnosis.

With a family history of the disease, he already had some knowledge. In 1994 the diabetes world came a step closer, mingling with his work as a lawyer.

A client - a UPS driver - lost his job when the company learned he had insulin-controlled diabetes, Griffin said. At the time, the company maintained a ban on all drivers who controlled their diabetes with insulin.

With little knowledge regarding both the disease and employment law, he took the case. With help from the American Diabetes Association and those in the medical field, the team saw victory in the federal court after a year-long fight.

UPS loosened some of its restrictions, he said, but still has a way to go. Still, that victory lit a fire under the Crossroads attorney with the smiling eyes, who went on to fight for equality in other industries, too.

People with insulin-controlled diabetes can now serve as special agents in the FBI, he said, while there are still hurdles to surpass with the CIA. Conversations are under way now with the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., he said, to allow pilots with insulin-controlled diabetes to fly planes.

"Large buildings are built in phases, and this project has been won in stages," he said. "In the federal government, the walls are tumbling down one by one."

Henry Guajardo, executive director of Workforce Solutions of the Golden Crescent, said he and others at the center support Griffin's advocacy efforts.

Although jobseekers are not required to divulge information regarding disabilities, Guajardo said the center has seen an increase in the number of people doing so.

"We refer them as we would anyone else as long as they meet the requirements with their skill sets, knowledge and education," he said. "Everyone has a right to seek gratifying employment."

Griffin's work isn't limited to the legal world.

Although he had volunteered with the American Diabetes Association before his diagnosis, he became further engrained afterward, eventually serving as the national organization's board chairman. While that term has expired, he remains involved.

Today he sits on the organization's legal advocacy subcommittee, as well as the research foundation board.

The world is getting closer to a cure, he said, but must continue the research. It isn't easy, he said, with the difficulty younger scientists face in obtaining funding, but the association is working to raise money for research.

Looking ahead, Griffin said it's empowering to imagine a world without diabetes. In the meantime, however, there's work to be done.

The diabetes community is not as connected as the breast cancer community, he said, noting he would like to see that change. Getting word out about the disease, and increasing people's knowledge, is also important.

He encouraged others to go out there and have an impact.

"If someone like me - from Victoria, with a wife and kids, living a regular life - can make a difference, a lot of people can make a difference," he said.



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