I was a Foods and Nutrition major in the Home Economics Department at North Dakota State Universiry. I didn't really enjoy food that much, but this was the route I had to take to become a dietitian, which also wasn't really what I wanted to do. I had started out college life in a nursing programme, but gave that up after the first year - finding both the college I had chosen too far
from home, and the job itself, too full of messy jobs.
Not wanting to waste any time, I decided that I needed to go into a new choice of profession that would maximise my credits from my first year - and that sort of left me with some sort of science program with a medical bias. So I could have gone into pharmacy or physical therapy or medical technology or dietetitcs - which I chose as the least awful.
In my senior year I had to take a course called Hostess Cookery. The main idea was to think in terms of special menus for certain occasions, and then the practical aspect of it was that each of us had to host a dinner party - on the campus - with only three people invited - the teacher, and another class member of my choice, and a special guest. My other class member was my roommate, Gwen - and she had the job of helping me to prepare my menu - although I had the choice of what food to serve, and which jobs to off load on her.
My guest was the woman who also employed me. She was called Elise - and she was studying for a master's degree in philosophy - in particular the work of Spinoza. I knew a lot about Spinoza that year because my job was to read to Elise. She was blind, and if that wasn't hard enough, she was also a diabetic - with a dependency on insulin.
My menu was supposed to take into account that a diabetic shouldn't have a high carbohydrate load. I chose fried chicken, boiled dandelion greens, and a circle of acorn squash with peas in the middle. Strawberry shortcake was the dessert, with no sugar in the cake, or with the fruit.
I made my roommate pick the dandelions, as her special job. She would hardly speak to me after that job - which took her ages - and it wasn't long after that that she chose to find a different roommate.
Although Elise was blind, she knew her way around the campus. Our dorm was directly across from the Home Economics building, and I told her that she would have three steps to go up to the front door. Then once inside, she should ask at the reception desk and I was sure someone would show her where our lab/dining area was. She said she was not worried by it, and would see me there at 12.30 on Thursday for the meal. She seemed pleased to be asked.
Cooking was no problem, and I was very used to making fried chicken, as it was a favourite at home - where I often cooked the meals. I had never served dandelion greens before - and never have since, as they were awful. I had thought they might taste a bit like spinach - but they were much more bitter. The shortcake again was not terribly good, without having the sugar included - but
considering it was done that way for a reason, my teacher thought it was fine.
So the only problem was 12.30 came, and Elise didn't arrive. We waited 15 minutes, with me anxiously looking out the window, but I didn't see her anywhere. In the end, we had to carry on
with the meal without her. I was worried about her, but there were no mobile phones in those days, so if she had problems, there was no easy way she could have contacted me.
The meal finally finished, and I did the dishes, and then went for my teacher's comments. She gave me a B+. She said the meal was fine, but I had been a poor hostess - and hardly spent any time trying to make conversation with her or my roommate (who wasn't talking to me anyway). She realised that I was worried about Elise, but that was no excuse for me ignoring my other guests. I had to agree with her, although I was surprised. I'm not a talkative person at the best of times, and the level of conversation didn't seem to me to be anything out of the ordinary.
As soon as classes finished I rushed to Elise's room - worried that she was ill. She answered her door, and when she heard that it was me, she said she was sorry, but she hadn't felt up to the challenge of trying to get to the building on her own. Why I hadn't thought to send someone to guide her there, I don't know. I just sort of thought she was more capable of coping than she
obviously was, when it came to new experiences.
A few days later, I was walking down the corridor and saw the dorm mother coming
out of Elise's room with a worried look on her face.
"Is she all right?" I asked.
"The ambulance is on the way," she replied. "She's had an insulin overdose."
Elise was several weeks in the hospital. When she returned she explained to me that she had given herself the insulin in the morning, and had intended going over for breakfast, but then forgot - and before she knew it she was in trouble. Luckily our dorm mother heard her groaning, and got to her in time.
We'll never know, but in the back of my mind, I was pretty sure that Elise wouldn't have made
that sort of mistake. She was a very clever woman, and knew full well what the consequences of insulin without food would be for her. But she finished out the year, and got her degree, and I can only hope she had as full a life as possible.