When Doug Burns' neck was on the line last month, getting close to being jailed for a case of hypoglycemic confusion, where was the American Diabetes Association? That was my question. I was told the advocacy group provided "legal counsel," but even after interacting with Doug's lawyer, I didn't really see the value-add. So I did a little digging, mainly to find out how much I could depend on this very-visible-but-rather-monolithic organization in times of need. Are they really there for the "little guys" when bad things happen due to our diabetes?
Where I ended up was on a long telephone call with Michael Greene, Chair of the ADA's Legal Advocacy Fund and a private malpractice lawyer in Portland, OR. (Michael has diabetes himself, along with his son Adam, a regular reader here and creator of a unique new online D-management system currently in beta testing.)
MG) I personally acted as Doug's co-counsel. We strategized, and helped his lawyer with expert testimony. The publicity was an important tactic -- applying pressure to (the DA's office) to recognize that they couldn't prove the case, that they had misacted.
DM) As Mr. Universe, Doug was a high-profile case. You can't possibly get personally involved in every one, or...?
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No. Doug is on the local ADA leadership counsel in San Jose, CA, so he had an immediate pipeline to us. The ADA's legal advocacy function kicked off 1993, and now actually supports a staff of six plus a volunteer committee of 12, and an adjunct attorney network of 300. There's also a medical network of 150 doctors and other professionals providing expert input.
We get over 300 calls a month — mostly employment and school issues, but also on incidences involving licensing, insurance, police situations, and "oddball stuff," like people being told they can't take insulin into a concert.
DM) So discrimination against people with diabetes is really that widespread?
MG) Discrimination is largely based on ignorance. The misconduct calls we get are invariably because the police don't know enough about diabetes, or don't understand the importance of getting medical help immediately.
Honestly, stuff like (Doug's case) happens every day in every city in the US.
DM) So you're constantly coming to the rescue. But didn't the ADA urge Doug to counter-sue?
MG) I don't know where you got that information about counter-suing.
Our concern is primarily with the criminal aspect of it. We don't believe having a low blood glucose is criminal conduct. The reports showed clearly that there was a medical problem, and the police didn't recognize it. Our advice is first and foremost to help get the person with diabetes out of the case, so they don't go to jail. Whether they choose to take the offensive and sue the police later on is a separate issue.
They could still be guilty of "negligence" for purposes of a civil lawsuit. For example, in incidents of car accidents, did the drivers get into the car already low?
We're not in the business of excusing inappropriate conduct. We're in the business of protecting people when they are being singled out for their disease and treated unfairly because of it.
DM) Understood. But isn't the ADA also working to help train police to better deal with diabetes-related situations?
MG) Yes, as the number of people with diabetes mushrooms, and use of insulin skyrockets, this is only gonna get bigger. They are going to be forced to prepare their personnel better.
After the case in Philadelphia where a number of people with diabetes died in police custody, we created a police training video and sent it out to thousands of police departments around the country. We're also looking at offering live training seminars.
DM) I've actually viewed that video, and it still seems hard to discriminate between the symptoms of hypoglycemia and say, drugs or alcohol...
MG) It's not black and white. It's definitely a judgment call. The issue is, how quickly do they escalate the situation to the use of force? Do they look for a medical ID bracelet? Do they call for medical backup? Training includes everything from keeping sugar soda available to posters in the station house to better tracking of the medical conditions of people brought in.
I guess the training was a success: no one's died in Philadelphia in recent years because they were not given their insulin. And the lag time in getting (patients) to people who could treat their diabetes is much, much better.
DM) OK, so if one of our community is arrested during a hypoglycemic episode we can really call you?
MG) We have enough money in our slush fund to get you out of any jail. It's called bail money.
Thank you, Michael, and staff at the ADA Legal Advocacy Fund. You have no idea how comforting that is :)