Diabetes Misinformation on TV

Touch not quite 'in touch' with diabetes

TOUCH on TV not quite ‘in touch’ with diabetes

I’ve been a big fan of the TV show TOUCH since its early pilot, supported it online, non stop. I engaged with the interesting conversations on Twitter with the show’s people and found it stimulating and entertaining (and brilliant promotion).

Then, I saw the “Noosphere Rising” episode (aired 4/26/12) and something changed.

Please keep in mind two simple things: 1. I loved the show and think its concept is absolutely brilliant; 2. I have insulin dependent diabetes (type I) and it would be unethical on my part to let such glaring misinformation go uncorrected.

TOUCH not ‘in touch’ with diabetes

In the episode, Martin (Kiefer Sutherland) finds a brilliant university professor passed out in his office (roughly 25 minutes in, you can watch here). Martin Calls 911. Then calls the last number dialed on the professor’s cell.

The dialogue goes something like this (paraphrasing but true to what’s essential):

MARTIN: I found him passed out in his office… You’re the last number he called… What can I do?
GUY: He’s diabetic. Insulin’s in a box in the fridge.

Martin hangs up, gets the box and shoots the professor up with insulin. The professor comes to in less than 10 seconds.

I was hooked by the episode (and the series) but as soon as I saw this scene I looked at my wife, wide-eyed and jaw dropped. It took me completely out of the show because what we’d seen is dangerous misinformation.

Granted, we all know that “If it’s on television, then it must be true. – Not” (I wish we remembered this when watching the news, but that’s a different story). But it is also true that medical shows, legal shows, crime shows and any drama on TV that uses diseases or legal things to move the story forward endeavor to be 100% accurate (and 99.9% of the times are).

Doing research is very easy now (one could argue that Google should get royalties from almost anything written these days). If you Google diabetes coma, or hyperglycemia, or hypoglycemia, you get all the information you need in roughly 0.15 seconds. People are more and more educated and television strives to inform just as much as entertain. Reliability is part of the show’s hook. If shows use false facts, non-existing laws and medical inaccuracies, they lose their audience.

Searching online I found that other diabetics had reacted to the scene in the same way. Some were writing to FOX to explain how dangerously misleading the information can be. I reached out directly to the people connected to the show, but nobody Tweeted or Google+ back to me. I’ll try Facebook, maybe now that it’s public I’ll get a response (I don’t know what it means, but Facebook’s IPO’s made such great news I figure it’s worth mentioning).

Here’s why what was shown in the scene is misleading, potentially dangerous and even life threatening (I’ll keep it simple).

1. If a diabetic is passed out, DON’T DO ANYTHING before assessing if it’s hypoglycemia (low blood glucose level) or hyperglycemia (high blood glucose level).

To correct severe hypoglycemia you use glucagon (shot). To correct severe hyperglycemia you use insulin (shot), intravenous fluids, potassium, and sodium.
2. For insulin to get a diabetic to come to after being passed out (as shown in “Noosphere Rising”) it means the diabetic is in hyperglycemic Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA), which means the blood glucose level is incredibly high for lack of insulin and has been for a long time (this is how diabetics died during wars because they didn’t have access to insulin). This causes severe dehydration, vomiting, hyperventilation and tachycardia. It takes a while before the diabetic is restored to full functionality.

If this were the case, it’d mean that the well-educated professor should’ve gone a long time without insulin. This is a super intelligent man who needs his brain more than he needs his legs. In DKA, and in the phases leading up to it, you don’t function well, you can’t focus, you can’t think, you vomit often, your heart races, you’re severely dehydrated.

Why would the professor get himself in such a condition and handicap his thinking power over a long period of time? Plus, the character should’ve shown signs of dehydration, which he didn’t. He looked well manicured and fully hydrated (could’ve been at the gym an hour before he passed out).

3. More common and easier to occur is hypoglycemia, hypoglycemic coma or severe hypoglycemia, which gets a diabetic passed out for excessive insulin.

This is typical of high functioning individuals (like the professor in the episode) who can easily forget to eat and/or overcompensate with insulin. They remain functioning, until hypoglycemia sets in and they pass out.

This is the case when a glucagon shot is given (the opposite of insulin) to revive the diabetic.

Hypoglycemia is a relatively quick in and out experience. DKA hyperglycemia is a long phenomenon with destabilizing, long-lasting symptoms.

4. If a diabetic is passed out and you don’t asses if it’s DKA or hypoglycemia you risk killing the person.

If you shoot insulin into a diabetic in hypoglycemia, you most likely kill him/her or cause severe brain damages (because you keep pushing blood sugar level lower than it already is until the brain has no more energy to function).

If you shoot glucagon in the case of DKA, you also risk killing the person or causing severe damages (because you keep pushing blood sugar level higher than it already is).

VERY DIFFERENT, PAY ATTENTION. CALL 911.

5. There’s no insulin on the market (that I know of) that brings a diabetic back from DKA coma in less than 10 seconds. Plus, the diabetic needs to be hydrated before he/she can fully function.

On the other hand glucagon does bring a diabetic back from severe hypoglycemia or hypoglycemic coma quite fast (I know, it happened to me).

6. Just a simple dialogue adjustment would’ve avoided all this potentially dangerous, misleading information (same production cost for the episode):

GUY (on the phone): He’s a diabetic, goes in hypoglycemia a lot, glucagon’s in a box in the fridge.

Or (less realistic given he’s a well-functioning, educated professor, but still…),

GUY (on the phone): He’s a diabetic. Never takes insulin, gets in Ketoacidosis. The insulin box’s in the fridge.

7. So, it looks like in “Noosphere Rising” they depicted a severe hypoglycemic case but they mentioned and used insulin (instead of glucagon) to revive the professor.

Let me give you a simple scenario of why the mentioned scene in Touch can be seriously dangerous. Say, a kid watches the show and sees the episode, but has absolutely no idea about diabetes. The kid also loves a girl but doesn’t know if she likes him back. A few days later, the kid finds himself with a group of guys and galls, including the girl he loves. Suddenly one of the guys passes out and somebody says “He’s got diabetes!” The kid wants to impress the girl and remembers the “Noosphere Rising” episode, and yells out, “Where’s the insulin? I know what to do!” They find the insulin and the kid shoots up the passed out guy. The highest probability is that the diabetic guy will die and our kid will not get the girl.

I highly admire the talent and productivity of everyone working on TV, the standard they set, week in and week out, is phenomenal. I waited for a response from Touch because, like I said, I loved the show. I hoped I had misread or misunderstood something. But I didn’t hear anything.

So I have to publish this, because I really want the kid to get the girl.

Peter Arpesella

Actor, writer, podcaster, painter, sailor, always loves a good laugh. Made in Italy, marketed in the US, sold worldwide.

11 Comments:

  1. Pingback: Glucagon function | Biofirecorp

  2. I saw that, how did they know it was a high blood sugar and not a low without even checking?! It actually looked like a glucagon kit to me which would of meant low blood sugar not giving insulin for a high. Wish the media would portray the specific types of diabetes correctly & we can start righting these misconceptions.

  3. Carol Miner

    This really infuriates me.. I remember when Oprah and Dr. Oz had a show on diabetes and mislead millions. Complaints were made by many type 1 diabetics, but we never did see any statement with a correction made. On the show they used a type 1 who had severe complications as a scare tactic. The show was really about type 2 diabetes. I was burning up when Dr. Oz claimed all diabetes could be prevented and reversed… Oh lordy!

  4. Hi Peter, thank you for sending this to me, I am gob smacked that this was shown on T.V, they could have simply done a BSL reading, this would have shown if the professor was high or low, then he could have called the ambulance and they would have directed him what to do, this is really frustrating because there seems to be a simple fix conception for people with diabetes and the confussion between type 1 and type 2 Diabetes. This is the main reason why I have started my not for profit organisation, my aim is to raise awareness to the devastating complications associated with this disease, and also the massive difference between type 1 and type 2. I have suffered for the last 30 years of my life and trust me in the 30 years that I have been a diabetes there hasn’t been much progress in people’s perception and understanding of this disease. Fifi ( Diabetes Alive)

  5. Thank you for bringing this to attention. I have shared via FB and hope many people will read. I would hate for that passed out kid getting “rescued” by a lovesick Touch viewer to be my type 1 son.

  6. Thank you for making a difference and not giving up until you reach a proper resolution and conclusion. When we found my insulin dependent 9 yr old son passed out on the bathroom floor we did two things…called 911 AND CHECKED BLOOD SUGAR. Thats when we found out glucagon was unnecessary as his blood sugar was within range. His diabetes was not related to that incident and injecting insulin or glucagon could have been fatal. Its imperative T.V shows provide accurate information as often as possible, it can be lifesaving. Glad you are being proactive and bringing attention to this matter!!

  7. This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want…HaHa). You definitely put a new spin on a topic thats been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!
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  8. wonderful post.Never knew this, regards for letting me know.

  9. Pattie MacK

    Thank you for writing in your blog about the gross misinformation on Touch. I’m also insulin dependent I just watched that episode last night with my 19 year old son. I paused the DVR so that I could stand up and scream. I was still mad when I woke up this morning. I believe this is so negligent that Touch needs to issue some sort of statement.

    • Hi Pattie, thank you very much for your comment. I know exactly what you mean because that’s what I and my wife did (we didn’t scream, but we used a variety of words 🙂 ).
      Please share this blog with as many people as possible.
      I love the show and I know the pressure the writers have to deal with to produce a high quality show week in and week out. But, like I say in the blog, the degree of negligence in this case can be dangerous.

  10. The misinformation never ends. As you pointed out, it would take a 30 second Google search to get the correct information. Is that too much to ask?

What do you think?