Diana Wyenn pivots with ‘Blood/Sugar’ in times of COVID-19
By Jana Monji
Diana Wyenn vividly recalls the spring of 2004.
“I was a college student; I was invincible,” she said, and then the universe proved her wrong but universal health care saved her.
Her one-woman show, “Blood/Sugar” has nothing to do with vampires, but it has everything to do with the specter of death and pandemics and how humans explain and adapt to dire situations.
Originally performed in theaters, Wyenn’s solo show about her daily struggles to live with Type 1 diabetes has mutated and been re-worked to be performed live from a remote location and to address concerns related to COVID-19.
“Blood/Sugar” will be performed live and broadcast from Wyenn’s home at 7 p.m. Saturday, November 21, as a CaltechLive! virtual event.
“Diabetes is a global pandemic that we are not talking about and I think we need to talk about it,” Wyenn said.
By 2050, the CDC projects that one in three adults will have some form of diabetes. The CDC estimates that in 2018, 34.2 million people of all ages—that’s more than 10% of the U.S. population—has diabetes.
In 2017, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States (after cancer, accidents, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease) and diabetic deaths may be under-reported. In her show, Wyenn talks about the intersection of diabetes with COVID-19. According to the CDC, diabetics have an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
Wyenn was attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, living for the first time in London. She had spent the summer in Amsterdam and was a student at NYU. Now in a spring semester of 2004, she was living in a dorm and effortlessly losing weight. But, she remembered, “I was drinking water constantly; it’s a huge red flag your body is trying to expel the excess sugar in your blood.”
Then, there was the episode on the subway, with which she opens her show. Wyenn said, “I look back and ignored these symptoms for months. If there wasn’t so much secrecy and shame around medical conditions. My fear of something being wrong also kept me away from getting help. I knew on a very deep level that there was something seriously wrong with me.”
What were those symptoms? She had extreme thirst, extreme hunger. “I was gorging myself at mealtime. I was drinking water constantly.”
At first, she queried the med students sharing the dorm.
“They were like eat more bananas. Put more salt on your food.”
None of that helped, of course.
“Finally, I realized there’s universal health care here so why don’t I just go to the clinic before class?”
Originally, Wyenn thought she’d get a prescription, but what happened “really flipped all of my expectations.” She was immediately admitted to an emergency room. “I’m told I’ve never been sicker in my entire life,” but Wyenn concluded, “I believe that universal health care saved my life.”
When she finally got help, she had dropped to 95 pounds from her usual 115. She remembers “walking over with this IV drip to the nurses’ station and calling Los Angeles” because “anybody who cared about me is thousands of miles away.”
Besides having fond memories of her artistic growth in London, Wyenn said, “The British (health care system was incredibly good to me, knowing I would return home to the American system of health care, they provided me with several months of supplies so that that transition could happen as smoothly as possible.”
Yet even after her diagnosis, Wyenn wasn’t ready to talk about diabetes.
“I was in complete denial for eight years, shoving it to the corner, doing only what I had to do and not taking authority over my circumstances.” Worse, when she took a deep dive online, the news wasn’t good. “I googled diabetes and ended up convinced I was going to die a double amputee, blind and of a stroke.”
Wyenn explained, “There was also unnecessary shame that comes with a disease like mine; I knew no one with diabetes.” It would be about a decade before she met another Type 1 diabetic. “Nobody talked about it. It was very negative; I wanted to disassociate with that and not let people judge me.”
Wyenn was diagnosed with Type 1, and if she had been a child, she would have instantly been plugged into groups and camps, but all these services were to support kids. There are no programs for college-aged students or at least her doctor in the United States didn’t lead her to any.
Curiosity got the better of her. “When I finally decided to stop hiding in 2012, I threw myself a party.” She also made 30 days of videos about diabetes that got thousands of views. In the last several years, she’s joined Facebook groups. She appreciates being part of those groups because the members are “witnessing each other’s journeys from afar, digitally,” and “they’ll share these personal experiences that you’re having in a vacuum and you feel so much less alone.”
With her show, she wants to dispel the misunderstanding and mysteries that surround diabetes and be very honest. During the show, Wyenn spews out a dizzy degree of numbers. That shouldn’t phase Caltechers but, Wyenn notes, “I always loved math and science. I also took calculous and AP biology.”
While she considers herself pretty good at math, diabetes is “an artistic math equation” because the math doesn’t add up. You have to figure out what works for you, depending upon what you eat. “Being great at math isn’t the only thing that’s going to keep you alive, there’s a level of testing, a level of intuition because there are scores of factors that move your blood sugar that have nothing to do with food.”
Surviving in the United States with diabetes isn’t easy. Wyenn remembers when she was diagnosed, “I had health insurance, but my mentality was to avoid getting care because it was expensive no matter what.” In the United Kingdom, when she asked for the bill, they didn’t need anything.
“I am extremely grateful for universal health care; it will save lives and it will reduce costs. It is a big reason why I do this show.”
Under President Donald Trump, her Affordable Healthcare became less affordable, increasing from $250 a month to $458. Annually, her healthcare costs her $7,888 “if nothing goes wrong.” Still she considers herself lucky because some diabetics are skimping on their insulin and that could have dire consequences.
Changing the show to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic required about two months. “I already had video design integrated in this show” and her video designer was quickly on board. Three different cameras are set up in her house, all connected to cellphones and laptops. Because it’s live, you might meet her dogs or her housemates. She’s literally turned her house into a theater and the feeling is cozy and intimate. The show also has moments of Shakespeare. The pandemic has made quotes from Richard II even more poignant. As you mull over casual meals out into the world while you’re sequestered, you can imagine how sadly isolated the man who was once king felt.
“To survive right now, we need each other more than we may be willing to admit,” she said. “Our autonomy must be balanced with our interconnectedness and mutual aid. We must protect ourselves, but we must also protect others. Wearing a mask is an important and powerful act of care, a gesture that I recognize that your life matters, and I want to protect you too. This isn’t an either/or scenario, it is additive and exponential for better or for worse, and I would like to see us both take and give care.”
7 p.m. Saturday, November 21
$20 | events.caltech.edu/series/caltechlive/bloodsugar