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Ellsworth woman conquering diabetes, one day at a time

Kathie Geister survived a bout with diabetes that put her in a coma for four days, left her hospitalized for nearly a month and away from her job at Loberg Law Office for three months. Geister finished therapy prescribed after her "spell" and was still having some balance issues. (Photo by Bill Kirk)

ELLSWORTH -- Kathie Geister lived with diabetes for most of two decades before it started really getting nasty.

The staffer for Loberg Law Office in Ellsworth suffered what she describes as a "spell" in May of 2011. Since then, she's gone through an ordeal that would test most anybody, nearly claiming her life and prompting her doctors and caretakers to regard her as a walking miracle.

"I had a doctor tell me more than once that he'd never in his 37 years seen anyone come into the hospital in that shape and survive," Geister said.

The local native was diagnosed with the disease over 20 years ago during a routine doctor visit, she said. She'd gone to the physician for a prescription for medicine for her stomach. Instead, she was told she had diabetes--news which her initial reaction was to doubt.

But the daughter of Eugene and Joyce Geister, who has four sisters and two brothers, said diabetes is in her family. Her dad had diabetes, as does one of her sisters.

"I was type 2 initially," she said, explaining the difference between that and type 1 is the latter tends toward juveniles. Her latest episode has led to a change in her type from 2 to 1-1/2, however.

Geister hadn't been on insulin, but had taken various pills to protect the health of her heart, kidney, liver and pancreas, she said. As for diet, she was told what not to eat: mainly bread, pasta and potatoes.

"I thought to myself, 'those are mostly what I do eat'," she said, noting her more recent restrictions haven't addressed what she eats as much as portion control.

She reports she used to test her blood sugar levels once a day (testing since her setback has increased to up to 10 times daily) and they run low, causing her to get weak, become shaky, hot and sweaty. Having three meals a day as well as a snack, usually before bedtime, serves to offset this, as does carrying something to eat with her, open and ready to be easily put in her mouth. It's especially needed when driving.

"Some people say 'why can't you just pull over?'," she said regarding the importance of the snack-in-hand. When she experiences a severe enough drop in blood sugar, it's like losing the use of her arms and legs...her brain functions, but otherwise she's somewhat paralyzed, she answers.

The food treatment can take a while to work, she said. Doctors want her sugar level to be under 120; she turns to eating when it drops to around 70.

'Game over'

Geister was coping fairly well with diabetes when she got the flu in late 2010. She said she noticed it was a more difficult illness than normal, as she usually doesn't miss much work due to sickness and this lasted through four days off-the-job and part of a weekend. She was now regularly tired--exhausted, in fact.

In the last couple of months before her "scare," she developed sores on the backs of her calves, she said. It was attributed to her being so inactive, doing a lot of sleeping. She was given antibiotics and another drug for pain, as walking had gotten painful.

"It was eating away at me," she said.

Then came that May morning in 2011, about which Geister doesn't remember much. She later learned she had called a co-worker to tell her she wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be coming to the office. The co-worker believed she was talking unusually, as though she had a drawl.

One of Geister's two daughters, Courtney Hayes, found her atop her bed and the ambulance was summoned, she said, admitting going any longer without help and the outcome could have been quite different. She was transported to River Falls, then immediately to United Hospital. She spent the next four days in a coma.

"I'd eaten sherbet the night before," she said, recalling a strong desire for a dish that was cold and wet. Coupled with what proved to be a gallstone, her condition took a harsh toll, she later understood.

She was eventually told all of her organs except for two had stopped, she said. Her family was notified to be prepared for a decision about shutting off life support. A brother later informed her it had been explained if she got a second chance at life, she'd better appreciate every single day.

Moreover, her family member shared the following words which were used, ones she can't forget: "game over."

Somehow, some way, Geister managed to improve. Her caretakers were amazed, she said; she saw them standing in the doorway of her hospital room, smiling at her.

Five kinds of therapy

The workout soon began. During two weeks in the hospital and at Sister Kinney Institute for another week, she was subjected to five kinds of therapy: occupational, speech, recreational, physical and anti-swelling. The last involved what she likened to a California body wrap applied to her legs, which made the other therapies more difficult. That, and the reality she was so tired.

"There were days when we'd start at 8 a.m. and keep going until 4:30 p.m.," she said.

The patient said her therapists would drill her about years and dates, such as when she started employment at the law office. This revealed problems, as did other questioning.

"I didn't know what a motorcycle was...I didn't know what a kitten was," she said.

They played board games and memory games, she said. Reading on one label "for ages three and up," she secretly wondered, "Am I really this bad?"

Even after her return to her job a year ago in the fall, she had trouble with spelling, she said. Words including "satisfy" and "rough" confounded her. The latter is written on documents in the office many times each day, yet she couldn't get it right. She knew she was misspelling it, but the fact she was mistakenly adding the letter "f" eluded her for a long time.

Geister was finally released from the hospital in June of '11 and would have headed for a nursing home, if not for the physicians being convinced her daughter could take care of her at her home, she said. At that time, when she'd return to work wasn't even in the picture, they told her. She simply didn't have the endurance; indeed, most of her summer was devoted to resting. She finally got back to the law office in September of '11.

A lack of balance forces her to use a cane, at times, she said. She doesn't navigate stairs--at her mostly single-level home, her daughter goes to the basement for her when necessary; at work, she hangs onto the railing while stepping up or down the few.

She finished therapy, then took two kinds of insulin, one in the daytime during meals and the other at night, she said. A baby aspirin, a children's vitamin, an iron tablet and a high blood pressure pill are her additional medications.

A donation jar was available at the office after she got back in the interest of a fundraiser for the Diabetes Foundation, she said. The Lobergs matched whatever contributions were given, and she's grateful to them and her fellow workers for their caring and patience. They wanted the funds raised to be designated for people in this area.

"A strong guardian angel" is what Geister was purported by one of the doctors to have when she survived her medical crisis. Coincidentally, at some point she'd begun wearing a small angel pin on her clothing, she said. It's a habit she's not likely to soon break.