University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

In Situ(lin): Digging with Diabetes – Alexandria Mitchem


July 7, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.


I was diagnosed with type I diabetes in September of 2005. Anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a chronic disease knows that there’s a good deal of inspirational ‘coaching’ mixed in with the medically necessary lifestyle changes. I was taught how to count carbs and how often to test my blood sugar, but also assured that I still had the freedom and ability to do whatever I wanted to do. Yes, indeed, my 11-year-old self was determined to continue eating ice cream, even if it would now be carefully portioned out of a measuring cup (spoiler alert, I totally ate more than one serving.)

Over the almost ten years I’ve had diabetes, I’ve been through various ups and downs. I still get frustrated with it from time to time and still feel a little helpless about controlling it. Yet here I am, off doing all sorts of out-of-the-ordinary things and trying to test my blood sugar at the same time. While the medical advances in controlling diabetes are amazing—certainly leaps and bounds better today that when I was diagnosed—I still very much have to work with my diabetes in the field. But I am working with it. It is possible.

One clean finger!
One clean finger!

The adventures I’ve had doing archaeology with diabetes range from things I found funny at the time they happened to things that I’m probably never going to find funny. An example of the former: I take my meter into the field to test my blood sugar at lunch. The only problem with this is that I typically don’t wear gloves when I’m working, leading to a second skin of mud. Potentially great spa treatments aside, this makes pricking my fingers a little difficult. Therefore, I have mastered the art of pouring water out of my already leaky bottle, onto exactly one finger, like so:

Cute, right? It’s so little extra effort that it far outweighs the alternative of passing out in a trench. Other things are fairly innocuous: every morning at 10:30, we break for a snack, as per the strong suggestion of Dr. Kassabaum, whose wisdom we all defer to on this matter. Most people bring crackers. My friend Chandler brings a sandwich (different from the one he’s packed for his lunch). I quickly realized that a 10:30 snack followed by a 12:00 lunch isn’t enough turnaround time to bring my blood sugar back down to a normal level for lunch. The solution? Carb free snacks, in this case cheese sticks. A bit annoying to not be able to have crackers, but honestly, cheese sticks are so delicious who’s really missing out in this case? Not me.

Other things are slightly more annoying. As I mentioned in my last blog post, the bugs are ferocious down here, so we cover ourselves in bug spray every morning. In addition to getting arms and legs, I’ve also been advised to spray along the hem of my pants and shirt to avoid anything particularly feisty crawling up my clothing. All good, sage advice. More advice for those who wear insulin pumps? Avoid spraying the attachment site with bug spray. It will get infected and you will regret all the decisions you’ve made that led you to this point. Additionally, sweat and adhesive do not mix. And the thing about archaeology, even if you aren’t in Mississippi—you do sweat. So I’ve found it necessary to attach my insulin pump far away from anywhere my pants will rub on my stomach, for fear of coming home like I did on the first day and finding it uselessly hanging in my pocket, distributing insulin to my dirt-covered thigh rather than anywhere it will actually be of use.

Then some things are just a little scary. High blood sugar comes with all sorts of complications including dehydration, nausea, and dizziness, none of which mix well with fieldwork. Having to go home from the field to discover the tubing to your pump was leaking and your blood sugar is very high is frustrating. It’s embarrassing because you feel like you should have caught it before it got bad; it’s guilt-inducing because you’re at home while everyone else is working; it’s downright unpleasant, because being very sick is just unfortunate all around.

All this being said, I’m here. I’m in good health and I have opportunities available to me that I would not have with my health had I been born in another time. My job, then, is to take advantage of this. Yes, I have to take extra steps and precautions and be very careful not to lose track of where my health is, but I also get to do what I love. I hope I never take that for granted.


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