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A Diabetic's Crusade Pays Off : Woman's Arrest for Drunk Driving Spurs LAPD Plan

April 28, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Terry Herst was having a terrible day.

First her doctor told her she had a tumor.

Then she was arrested for drunk driving.

Obviously, this is a pretty good recipe for depression.

But for Herst, a diabetic for more than 20 years, the arrest was a turning point, not a bitter nightcap to a day of horrors.

After she was released, the 50-year-old, socially well-connected and financially independent Herst began a more than year-long effort that changed the way the Los Angeles Police Department treats some drunk-driving suspects.

Because of her initiative, police department spokesmen say, officers have been taught to recognize that some symptoms of diabetes, including sweating and shaking, mimic the effects of alcohol.

More importantly, in Herst's opinion, policemen have been told--through the three-minute training film that she was instrumental in having made--that medical treatment for diabetics, drunk or not, should take precedence over police business.

Some police officers also are carrying wallet-sized cards describing symptoms of diabetic attacks that Herst had printed.

For Herst and the Los Angeles chapter of the American Diabetes Assn., both the training tape and the cards are important because about 11 million people in this country, or nearly 1 in 20, suffer from diabetes and some are inevitably going to find themselves in police custody. (The disease is caused by the body's failure to use or produce insulin, a hormone that controls the metabolism of blood sugar. It is the third leading cause of death in this country and is responsible for 25% of all kidney failure and 15% of all blindness.)

Among other things, the police tape warns that some symptoms of diabetes "can falsely give the person the appearance of drunkenness."

However, this is getting ahead of the story.

On the January evening in question last year, Herst was a preoccupied woman with no idea she was about to become a crusader.

After dinner with friends at a Beverly Hills restaurant, Herst recalled, she "felt my blood sugar dropping," a signal that she was on the verge of a diabetic effect called hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, possibly triggered by a large cognac she had consumed just before leaving the restaurant. Over dinner a couple of hours earlier, Herst said, she had one glass of wine, her only other drink of the night.

The Headlight Switch

"I was using my housekeeper's car because my car was being repaired," she said in an interview. "In my car you turn the headlights on on the dash, in her's it's on the steering wheel. I turned on what I thought were the headlights and it was just the dash lights. And the streets were well lit. . . . I felt the insulin reaction coming on, so I was concentrating on that, which is typical of a diabetic, when you feel something you fight it. In the meantime, I am crying because I'm thinking, 'I've got cancer. I have two sons. How am I going to tell them?' . . . That helped push the insulin reaction, I'm sure. Emotion plays a tremendous part in diabetes and in any illness. . . . I did not realize there was a police car behind me."

What happened following her arrest on Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles is foggy, Herst said, blaming her hazy memory on the diabetic condition, a point that is also made on the police training tape which warns that diabetics may be in an "abnormal mental state." She guesses that there was sweat on her forehead and that her hands were shaking, also signs of low blood sugar.

"I remember they handcuffed me and I said, 'Please don't handcuff me.' An hour later I was in Van Nuys at the police station. By the time I got there the sugar from the alcohol as well as the alcohol was in my system. When you get sugar in your system and you're having an insulin reaction, your functioning comes back. . . . I remember everything at the police station, I even remember asking why they took my shoes and they told me some persons throw them (when in custody)."

At first, Herst said, she was inclined to plead guilty to the drunk-driving charge and "get it over with." But she decided to fight in court because "I'm innocent and if I have the money and can afford an attorney then I should do it because there may be someone in my situation who doesn't."

Unfortunately for Herst, the jury didn't believe her story and found her guilty after a seven-day trial last July. Herst noted wryly that she was called back to court from a meeting of the Save the Books committee--formed after last year's disastrous fire at the Central Library--to hear the verdict. (The case is currently on appeal and Herst, who has a law degree but has never practiced, says she has spent $13,000 on legal fees so far. Herst, a Pacific Palisades resident, and her attorney, J. Michael Flanagan, contend that for various physiological reasons, including her diabetic condition, she had not consumed enough alcohol to be legally intoxicated even though she failed a sobriety test.)

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