Testing Times – by Olly Double


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Although it’s nearly a third of a century since I took my O-levels, I vividly remember some of the exam rituals we used to have. As you sat down in the exam hall, you’d take all the stuff out of your special pencil case and line it up along the back of your exam desk – pencil, pencil sharpener, ruler, at least two pens (in case one of them ran out), and possibly some kind of plastic mascot or furry gonk to bring you luck.

My mum also used to make me take glucose tablets in, because she said that they would boost my blood sugars and that would help me to concentrate. Not being diabetic, I don’t think they did any good, but I was still at the age where any chance to eat something sweet was instantly accepted. So I’d take the glucose tablets into the hall and chew away at them through the exam, even though it made me feel slightly sick by the end.

The reason I’m recalling all of this is that my son Joe is currently in the middle of GCSE exams. Unlike me, he does have type 1 diabetes, so his pre-exam ritual is a bit more serious than mine. The stuff he lines up along the back of the desk includes his blood glucose testing kit and a bottle of Lucozade in case of hypos – no glucose tablets for him, as he finds these chalky, medicinal sweets far too unpalatable.

Before the exam starts, he tests his blood glucose and writes his level down on a piece of paper that the school provides him with. He also has a stopwatch with him, and if he has to stop and test his blood sugars during the exam or wait to come up from a hypo, he times how long this takes and then gets that much extra time at the end.

In among the GCSEs, Joe’s also taking an AS-level in philosophy, which he started studying this year. It’s quickly become his favourite subject. He loves contemplating the nature of existence, and engaging me in arguments about, say, whether free will exists or not. These debates often go on for weeks, eventually leading me to say something like, ‘Look Joe, free will definitely does exist, so please feel free to stop haranguing me about it while I’m doing the washing up.’

Exams affect Joe’s blood sugars, and like everything else with diabetes, the effects are complicated and unpredictable. He finds revising tends to make his blood sugars run low. Anything that involves a lot of concentration tends to have that effect. As Descartes might have put it, ‘I think, therefore I am hypo.’

However, during the actual exams, Joe’s more likely to get high blood sugars. Presumably, the effects of thinking hard are more than counterbalanced by the sheer terror of taking exams, and as we know, stress can often induce hyperglycaemia. Joe says having high blood sugars makes him feel so horrible that it’s hard to think straight. Apparently, if he spends most of the exam over 14 mmol/L, that’s supposed to be somehow taken into account with the marking – but Joe has no idea exactly how that would work, so he gets worried when high blood sugars have made his thinking go all wonky.

I should point out that the special allowances that help to ensure that Joe isn’t disadvantaged have had to be negotiated, and some schools refuse to take even these simple steps. My wife Jacqui, who’s involved in various diabetes networks, tells me that in some cases kids with diabetes have been banned from taking blood glucose monitors or even hypo treatment into the exam hall.

At the end of the exam, Joe always tests his blood glucose, and takes any necessary action. If he’s low he’ll have a swig of Lucozade, and if he’s high he’ll dial up a correction bolus on his insulin pump. Socrates is supposed to have said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’, but I think most of us would happily spend the whole of our lives without the scary rigmarole of sitting exams.

However, diabetes adds an extra layer of complication and annoyance to the whole exams palaver, and it makes me feel very grateful that I didn’t have to put up with that all those years ago when I was taking my O-levels.

Mind you, Socrates is also supposed to have said, ‘I know one thing: that I know nothing.’ That wouldn’t have helped him much when he sat down to do his GCSEs. He should have done a bit more revision.

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I did my O levels on 2 injections of self mixed insulins a day. We didn’t get extra time in those days. Ghastly business. I found that although I felt hypo, I was actually always high due to stress. But it’s only for a few hours at a time, so nothing to worry about. Of course the need to wee isn’t much fun.

I think the high sugars may come from sitting very still in one place for a long time and stress. If it was me I would inject slightly more because you can test and drink lucozade Get parents to ask to sit at the back so nobody else can see you and you may feel more comfortable testing etc Perhaps have a word with the invigilator too before you start so that they know what is going on..Good luck to your son!
Tell him not be too stressed.. exams are not everything. I know, I mark them at A level…they are only one marker of success. He could put a note on the actual script though to explain to the marker, if it makes him feel better …some candidates do this – they tell us about various things
All the best

I am diabetic myself. Sitting my GCSEs currently, although my school have never been quite so organised or helpful when it comes to my diabetes. It has taken 5 years for them to stop battling me and just let me do the things I need to do with diabetes, and only now that I have made the decision to not stay there for sixth form due to there lack of interest in my health mentally and physically, have they started to listen. I take in my Diabetes pencil case and put it underneath my desk, I’m not convinced the invigilators always know what it is, and during my mocks I had to put it at the front of the hall – I sit at the back. My headteacher has encouraged me to make sure I put my hand up and leave the room an do my blood sugars, have a snack, or anything i need during the exam, but in all honesty, the idea of leaving the exam, and being the odd one out can be a lot more scary than the actual sitting the exam. I am on the insulin pump, and I do get incredibly scared that it will bleep and that I will be asked to leave the exam room. I know that eventually they will have to back down and accept that it is my insulin pump, but even due to the exam clash last week when I had to be kept in isolation and the invigilator was very suspicious when I used my insulin pump to do insulin and tried to confiscate it from me. It does worry me during exams because I can never predict whether my bloods will go high or low, there isn’t a lot I can do to prevent it either. Best of Luck with all Joes exams! I also love philosophy! My mum is often in the same position as you! Thank you for the article, it reminds me that I’m not the only one who struggles with exam periods.

While sitting my exams at school and at university I hated the unpredictability of my bloodsugar. Invariably I would hypo the night before so would wake up with a hyper-hypo hangover and so the saga of ‘chase the bloodsugar’ would begin. While I hated ‘playing the diabetic card’, as some may describe it because after all their Granny has diabetes and just has a special sugar-free diet, any school or institution that bans a blood machine or glucose tablets should be reported to the authorities. What they should understand is that candidates with diabetes would rather not but unfortunately must have their necessary kit at hand.
I wish your son every success in his exams especially his philosophy A-level , while unfortunately ‘I think, therefore it am (sometimes) hypo’, its great that such a subject encourages young minds to explore and contemplate thus ‘i think because i can’.