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The Doctor, The Patient and the Healing Power of a Story; Elsa K and Dr. Vinik Create Change Together

A young lady, 22, found out that she had type 1 diabetes during a second visit to her new dermatologist. The doctor didn’t like the way she looked and ordered some blood work. While looking at the results, he commented; “You do know you’re diabetic, right?”
Elsa K and Doctor Achieve Positive Diabetes Results

Elsa K, right, travels with her friends during school trip abroad. She calls Dr. Vinik, her new diabetes doctor, a “genius.”

Unfortunately, this was news to her. She has a younger sister with the disease and understood some of the ramifications of this diagnosis from growing up and watching her sister live with this disease. However, observing diabetes is much like being a passenger in a car; taking the wheel is an entirely different experience!

She had just started her first job out of college three months prior to the diagnosis. She was beginning her adult life and living away from home in New York. She began seeing an endocrinologist to learn about the day-to-day challenges of living with diabetes. She struggled mightily to achieve a decent A1C. Her first doctor was kind and then angry and then threatening. Another, also kind, said, “Just get your blood sugars under control and everything will be fine.” Each of these docs was a good doc but not what this young lady needed to facilitate making positive changes.

Enter Dr. Aaron I. Vinik, Professor and Vice Chairman for Research, Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va. He spent a great deal of time interviewing her during her first visit. Having been exposed to a number of endocrinologists, it was notable that he did not want to look at her meter, pump and logs first. For a patient who felt she was failing, this may have been the first step in being able to be completely honest with her doctor.

Dr. Vinik impressed her as a sharp, direct, knowledgeable doctor with a sense of how large a role the mind plays in successful diabetes management. He didn’t criticize or recommend she “just get her blood sugars in order.” He listened first and provided reassurance. He offered suggestions, a plan, and guidance in a manner that set little goals that were manageable. He had high expectations but was wise enough to know the results would come in time. He helped positive changes happen for a young woman ready to give up.  He also provided a sense of “we have your back” as well as small, manageable steps toward the end goal of better glucose control.

How did he create change for this young lady? He is kind, patient, a great listener, and an astute observer of human behavior. He conveys much with words and more with his demeanor. He teaches by telling a relevant story. It is hard to admit your fears to anyone, particularly a doctor you barely know. On her third visit to Dr. Vinik, she was comfortable enough to admit that she had an outsized fear of low blood sugars. Not even her family was aware of this fear. Dr. Vinik shared a story that helped her put this fear in perspective. He told her of the miners he treated in South Africa early in his career. They were paid on Friday and then drank strong, rotgut type of alcohol all weekend. The diabetics among them would end up sick in the Emergency Room with Dr. Vinik on Monday mornings. Often they would have a blood sugar of 20. He said the men were conscious and still talking with a blood sugar that low because they were used to it. Not that he was advocating going that low! However, he deftly used this story to put her fear into perspective. She thought of it often, as she trusted him regarding her pump settings and experienced some lows. His words gave her courage. His wisdom gave her the strength to push forward and achieve success in managing her diabetes. He helped her lower her A1C by 3 points.

As she often says; “he’s a genius!” Every patient in his care is so very fortunate.  We are forever grateful to Dr. Vinik and the healing power of a simple story.

By Maryann Kaminsky
Proud Mother of Two Type 1D Daughters

The EVMS Strelitz Diabetes Center (SDC) in Norfolk, Virginia, is comprised of a renowned international team of endocrinology experts – clinical providers, scientists and educators – working to find the cure for diabetes and to prevent the debilitating complications of neuropathy and cardiovascular disease.