The Diabetes Supplies Thief

WRITTEN BY: Oren Liebermann

Oren Liebermann is a CNN journalist based in Jerusalem who has received two Emmy awards and three Associated Press awards. His travel memoir, The Insulin Express, tells of his Type 1 diabetes diagnosis while globe trotting through 30 different countries. This is an excerpt.

Chapter 16

April 22, 2014 

11°34’14.4”N 104°55’47.5”E 

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

I never see the bastards coming. There are two — one driving the motorbike and the other sitting behind him. The second guy is the thief. The first is the getaway driver. Their target is a small pouch sticking about two inches out of my left cargo pocket. I’m sure they think it has money since, somehow, I doubt they realize that no tourist would have his billfold hanging out of his pocket. Inside the pouch that I got from Etihad Airways on my way home after my diagnosis are my diabetic supplies: my blood sugar monitor, test strips, and about a third of an insulin pen. The red plaid pouch scores far more points for functionality than style.

They yank the pouch from my pocket as Cassie and I are walking to dinner along the river in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They make a left and speed off. I immediately start sprinting after them, running full speed for about fifty meters, adrenaline pumping through my veins. Without my diabetes supplies, I am left guessing at my blood sugar. My glucose monitor is the single most important piece of equipment for me to control my diabetes. I cannot imagine a life without it because there is no life without it.

I keep them in sight, but I’m not exactly closing the gap. It’s not that I’m slow. Quite the contrary. I was the fastest Jew in my high school, which almost means something since my high school was 40 percent Jewish. I even earned the nickname Jewish Lightning back then. But Usain Boltstein I am not.

I flag down a car and yell at the driver, “Follow that bike!” When the driver speeds off without me, the fruitlessness of the situation dawns on me pretty quickly. Cassie has the presence of mind to flag down a passing motorbike right after I get pickpocketed, and she hops on and puts up chase. As she passes me, she gleans as much information as she can from me.

“What was their license plate number?” 

“I don’t know!” 

“What were they wearing?” 

“I don’t know!” 

“What did they look like?” 

“I don’t know!” 

I always thought I would be so astute if someone succeeded in pickpocketing me. I would know within seconds that something was missing, and I would immediately create a list of suspects from all of the people I had seen within the last few minutes. I would recognize their faces, their clothes, and any distinguishing features. I would pick up on the curly dark hair, the small tattoo of a coiled snake on the back of the neck, the white unlaced shoes, the stained jeans. The suspect would be caught within hours, facing justice and the prosecution I would press to the fullest extent. 

None of that happened. I couldn’t remember even a single detail. There were two young men on a bike. They looked Asian. And I can’t even be sure about that. That’s all I’ve got, and that’s probably not enough to launch a police investigation. I had made it through all of Europe’s pickpocket danger zones: Paris, Rome, etc. And I get tagged in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Phnom freakin’ Penh. 

I look up and down the street, struggling to catch my breath after my impromptu sprint. To go up the street is to pursue the captors of my supplies, and even I realize how pointless that is; to go down the street is to admit defeat. I was enjoying the relatively cool night air, but now I am sweating again, and not just from exertion. I had never planned for this contingency, never thought there was any way I would let anyone or anything separate me from my monitor. Without my supplies, my heart beats a little faster and my breaths become a little shorter. I was hoping the punks would open the pouch, realize there was no money inside, and throw it to the street, but they aren’t kind enough to do that. Instead, Cassie and I shift quickly from the burning desire for vengeance to the pressing need to find a way to keep track of my blood sugar. 

We grab a tuk-tuk and go to a couple of pharmacies before we find one that has a blood sugar monitor and test strips. Not the OneTouch device that I had, but a cheap generic brand that seems to work well enough. It costs us forty-two dollars. We spend another twelve dollars on fifty test strips. 

Cassie and I come up with a simple plan. Get enough test strips for my replacement device to get me to Hong Kong (about two weeks away), and there I can buy a new OneTouch blood sugar monitor since I’m carrying hundreds of OneTouch test strips. Watson’s Pharmacy, one of the biggest chains in Hong Kong, responds very quickly to my customer service email and includes a list of all the OneTouch supplies they carry, which is fantastic. That will be our first stop when we get to Hong Kong. 

When we arrive back to our guest house, Cassie explains to the receptionist what happened, while I figure out how to use my new blood sugar monitor, which happens to be quite a bit bigger and bulkier than my old one. The receptionist is so upset she almost starts crying. I find that odd, since I’m the one with the chronic disease, but I will not be the one to ruin this emotional moment. 

We try to comfort her, reassuring her that we don’t hold it against her or Cambodia. Quite the contrary. We’ve had an incredible time in her country, and this little incident won’t change our opinion.

Over the last few months, I’ve had to look at a lot of different things in a positive light, and this is no exception. I consider it a win-win situation that they got away. Those two punks didn’t have their arms broken, and I didn’t have to go to a Cambodian jail. Given the generally fervent belief in karma in this part of the world, I fully expect they will develop type 1 diabetes. 

In that case, I hope they held on to the monitor, since it’s a damn good one.

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Oren Liebermann

Oren Liebermann has spent a decade in TV news and is currently a CNN International Correspondent based in Jerusalem. He is the recipient of two Emmy awards and three Associated Press awards. Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes on Valentine’s Day, 2014, in a local Nepalese clinic, he now works with organizations like the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to promote safe traveling for others with the disease. He founded the world travel blog 42nd Class with his wife, Cassie. They live in Jeursalem with their baby daughter, Noa.