The strange case of Doug Burns is over. Mr. Universe has been vindicated – and the diabetic patients who rallied to his cause feel they’ve won as well.
Burns, of course, is the type 1 patient who last year became a literal poster boy for diabetic achievement when he was named “Mr. Universe.” But in April he garnered unwanted national attention when he was arrested for assaulting police officers and resisting arrest at a movie theater in Redwood City, California. (See Close Concerns’ blog on May 8.)
The episode turned an otherwise obscure body builder into a diabetic martyr.
It all began on April 1 when Burns miscalculated his insulin dose prior to going to the movies (he normally uses a pump but had to switch to injections when he ran out of infusion sets). Burns began acting erratically, and a security guard at the theater called the police because he thought that Burns was drunk. Actually, Burns’s behavior was caused by his hypoglycemia, which left him dazed. That was not simply his contention – he had proof. When his blood sugar was checked following the incident (either at a hospital Emergency Room or by paramedics on site), it was 26 mg/dL.
Burns only vaguely recalls what actually happened outside the theater, where he had his encounter with the police officers. According to media reports, Burns assumed a fighting stance when the police arrived, and at some point the officers sprayed him with mace, beat him, and handcuffed him. A photograph taken after his arrest shows him with welts on his forehead.
Burns was wearing a medic alert bracelet, but it apparently broke during the fight. He later found it in his pocket.
The incident should have ended once paramedics arrived and instructed the officers to remove the handcuffs because Burns was in hypoglycemic shock. The event would have been a stark reminder of why authorities need more education about diabetes and, for Burns, a painful lesson on the dangers of low blood sugar.
Instead, the Redwood City District Attorney charged Burns with criminal assault and resisting arrest, and a trial was set for July 2.
The charges defied common sense: the police department’s own reports confirmed that Burns’s blood sugar was 26 mg/dL, so no jury, once educated about hypoglycemia, would hold Burns responsible for his actions.
But the court of public opinion – specifically, the diabetes community – was already issuing its own harsh judgment.
Jeff Hitchcock, the widely respected founder of Children with Diabetes, spoke out on Burns’s behalf. In addition to our own blog, Burns became the subject of numerous diabetic blogs, including Amy Tenderich’s www.diabetesmine.com. Tenderich urged readers to leave “angry messages” on the answering machines of Redwood Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe and Assistant District Attorney Morley Pitt. Tenderich included their phone numbers. Burns, meanwhile, found himself on the June/July cover of Diabetes Health (“Mr. Universe! His Journey from Scrawny Boy to Brawny Hero”), which included a detailed account of Burns’s confrontation with the police.
Unintentionally, Mr. Universe had been turned into a martyr, a larger-than-life symbol of all the slights and biases that people with diabetes regularly face. If Burns had gone to trial, imagine the uproar! If hypoglycemia could lead to jail time, what’s next? A stiff fine for a high A1c? Probation for retinopathy?
In fact, Burns’s lawyer, Micah Jacobs, told Tenderich that the initial police report made no reference to Burns’ attacking the police. “It's one thing if he would have harmed someone and could later prove that it was a medical issue,” Jacobs said. “But nothing even happened, and he can prove it was a medical issue.”
Alas, Burns never needed his day in court: his case was dismissed today (Wednesday). The assistant district attorney told Tenderich: “We have conducted further investigation and concluded that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute the case against Mr. Burns.”
We’re delighted for Doug Burns and wish him all the best, though we suspect that a public trial – replete with television cameras, legal pundits, and exhaustive medical analysis – would have been a bracing education for the rest of the country and would have made Mr. Universe a true global figure.
By James S. Hirsch