Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Conflicted

This is a really hard post to write, and I have questioned whether I should write it at all. So please, be kind and bare with me.

If you have been a reader for very long you know about my job, my aspirations, my diagnosis, and my struggles. Even though my words may make it sound easy to stay upbeat about the conglomeration that is my life, it definitely isn't; at times it is downright heartbreaking. At other times it is amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunities and support from genuinely caring people (let's be honest, they don't get paid extra to persuade the chain of command that its ok for me to fly, or get dunked, or get hypoxic).

Today was one of those heartbreaking type of days, for more than one reason.

I was honored a few weeks ago to find out that I had been selected to attend a short course at the Naval Test Pilot School, Patuxent River. If you know anything about our manned spaceflight program history, you know this place is a pretty big deal. The plaques on the walls list some of the best: Alan Bean, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Charles Bolden, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Sunita Williams, Mark and Scott Kelly, and Alan Shepard. These folks paved the way, they took the first flights of Redstones and Titans, they walked on the moon, they set records for space walks, they lived on the edge. And here I am, walking their halls, learning some of the same principals they were taught, and living a couple weeks in a place that has become hallowed ground since their achievements. For a young flight test engineer, and space junkie, this is it. Many of the men I look up to at work have also graduated from here, with the patches, stories, and flight hours to prove it. It really is a special place.



I was also thrilled to find out that, as part of the course, we would be flying in a special Saab aircraft (you can read about it here). It's something different than my usual helicopters, and it is equipped with many special gadgets to play with, and "test". I wasn't surprised (or especially nervous) that we would each have to meet with the Navy's flight doc just to be sure we were A-Ok to fly. I sent an e-mail before the class to double check that my recent FAA Class III medical would suffice, and after confirmation that it would, I stuffed it into a manila envelope to show the doc upon arrival.

Today we met with the flight doc.

The "Bottom Line Up-Front", or BLUF as they like to say in military-land: I was APPROVED to fly on the Saab aircraft. So, if this story gets you really down, you can at least know that in the back of your head.

Getting "APPROVAL" was really the sad part. [Side note: have you guys ever seen Debbie Downer? Check it out here. And know in your heart, I try to keep my moments of Debbie Downer-ness in the minority.]

It went something like this (seriously, this is almost verbatim, and it might be shocking to my fellow PWDs, especially since he was a doctor, I can't make this stuff up):

Doc: "Hi, let me see your form."
Me: "Here it is."
Doc: "You have Type 1 Diabetes huh?"
Me: "Yes Sir, controlled via insulin pump and Continuous Glucose Monitor."
Doc: "Hmmm....a pump? I don't know that we can have those aboard the aircraft. There are unshielded wires and we are not sure how those might interact with the pump."
Me: [OK, I totally get that, good thing I brought backup] "I brought my insulin pen, so I can disconnect my pump during the flight and just do injections."
Doc: "Hmm...well a pump implies that you couldn't control your diabetes before."
Me: [completely flustered, did a doc really just say that?!] "No, it doesn't imply that. I have always had pretty good control, I chose to go on the pump about 12 years ago to maintain even tighter control, closer to a non-Diabetic's pancreas, and increase flexibility, it really had nothing to do with my level of control pre-pump."
Doc: "Ok...I will need to talk this over with the short course manager. Let me finish the others first."

After a brief intermission in the hall, with my mind still spinning wondering how I got pinged by a DOCTOR'S MISCONCEPTION OF INSULIN PUMPS I had a closed door meeting with the doc and the short course manager. After talking through the shielded wire issue (which, I totally understand), the agreement was to let me fly as long as I took my pump off, gave injections, and tested my blood sugar pre-flight. Ok, I can do all that. No problem. Before I left I asked another question:

Me: "In previous years, engineers from my directorate were part of the long-course. They graduated from the 'full TPS', just out of curiosity, would I ever be able to be a part of that if selected?"
Doc: "No, you must be able to pass the active-duty Navy physical; Type 1 Diabetes is automatic disqualification. I guess you could attend the school and just not fly, but I'm not sure they would ever select you if they knew that would be the case."

Needless to say, I left the doc's office with a wad full of pent-up depression. I couldn't believe I had to explain why an insulin pump does not equate to previously uncontrolled T1 Diabetes. I couldn't believe he seemed surprised that I could manage my own multiple-daily-injections without him giving me dosing instructions. I could believe that it would be a slim chance to get a waiver to attend the long-course TPS, but I was still sad that it had to be that way.

And so my internal conflict has begun.

I want so bad to leave TPS next week with a good feeling, that I had the opportunity of a lifetime, that I stepped foot in one of the most storied buildings in the world of flight testing, that I might get to go back someday. I hope those feelings far outlive the struggles I faced today. I hope the flight doc was just as wrong about a waiver as he was about Diabetes control. I hope I'm worth whatever struggles and persuasion it would take. I know it is kind of a long shot, but I feel like I'm becoming an expert on long shots.

Its days like today that make me wonder if I should just "give up", stop trying to push the boundaries and instead, just find happiness living within them. It would make everything a lot easier, it would probably regulate my emotions, and I wouldn't have to be constantly on-edge wondering if I would actually be able to complete the next task I signed up for.

But then I think about those stereotypes and misconceptions, and it just makes me want to push those boundaries and break those barriers even more. If we don't stand up and fight for ourselves, who will?

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On a side note, I want to give a big thank you to all those who have worked behind the scenes to make sure I am not overlooked for these special opportunities because I have T1D. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed, you know who you are.