Redwood City police wrestled and maced the reigning Mr. Natural Universe Sunday night outside the downtown movie theater in a chaotic tussle the diabetic athlete claims was caused by insulin shock.
The altercation left Doug Burns, 43, battered and arrested for assault and resisting arrest. More worrisome to the father of three and medical research institute director is the idea that if a well-built, well-dressed man like himself can be misidentified as combative and intoxicated because of diabetes, how would somebody more casually attired or young fare?
While Redwood City police Capt. Chris Cesena acknowledges an on-scene medical test ultimately showed Burns as having low blood sugar, police reports describe him as assuming a fighting stance and requiring four officers for submission.
"The fact is Mr. Burns assaulted our officer,” Cesena said. "If he had just stood there and let us help him maybe they would have called the medics if he didn’t seem to fit the description of being under the influence. All that changes when the subject wants to attack an officer.”
For Burns, though, the fact is he doesn’t recall much between feeling his blood sugar dropping in the Cinemark theater and regaining coherence in the San Mateo Medical Center with mace on his shirt and glucose paste down the side of his face. The time in between are snapshots, he said, of being on the sidewalk in front of the theater unable to speak, hearing officers theorize he was on PCP and hoping somebody noticed either the Medic Alert bracelet on his wrist or a card in his wallet identifying him as the director of diabetes and obesity education for a medical research institute.
Redwood City police apparently didn’t see either identifier, instead reacting to a situation that began with a mistaken security guard and quickly grew worse.
Burns went to the theater Sunday, a day after visiting the same place with his 12-year-old daughter and her friend. That evening, as he chatted with a friend, Burns said he felt his blood sugar dropping and hurried to reach the snack counter.
Over the weekend, Burns had moved from his 24-hour insulin pump to a new diabetes drug. His body was adjusting and the new injection may have mixed with any residual underlying medication, he said.
As his vision grew so poor he couldn’t read the movie times, Burns asked the clerk for a ticket to the 7 p.m. show — he doesn’t even know what movie was playing — and went upstairs in search of food to head off insulin shock.
The security guard told police Burns was wobbly and unstable on his feet and wouldn’t reply to his questions. Thinking Burns was intoxicated, the guard walked him outside and told him to leave. When Burns didn’t, he called police to report his loitering, Cesena said.
Burns can’t clearly recall a conversation with the guard but said insulin shock leaves a person unable to communicate clearly. Burns should know — not only had he dealt with type I diabetes for 35 years, he also serves as a boardmember of the American Diabetes Association and frequently speaks as a health and fitness expert at diabetes and medical conventions.
When officers arrived, Cesena said, Burns lunged at one officer, pushing him to the ground with both hands, and took a fighting stance. The officer sprayed him with mace but Burns was unswayed until four officers wrestled him to the ground. One officer suffered a cut finger and a sergeant hurt his right arm. Cesena believes he is currently off work because of the injury.
Burns said witnesses painted a different picture for him. They said officers poked him with a stick while he was on the ground and had dogs on the scene, ready to react. A man Burns met in the parking lot while retrieving his vehicle later that night said he was surprised to see him alive after the scuffle. He thinks, if he flailed, it was because of shock-related convulsions rather than purposeful strikes.
"I could understand if I was belligerent or had track marks but I was nicely dressed and I don’t think I fit the profile or smelled like alcohol,” Burns said.
Even if Burns had a Medic Alert bracelet, there was likely little time to look while the officers tried controlling the situation, Cesena said. The police report makes no mention of dogs present, he said.
Officers touch on insulin shock and other medical conditions that could be misidentified during academy and further certification training, Cesena said.
"I couldn’t tell you how much time is actually spent on first aid training. I wouldn’t call any of us experts in the field,” Cesena said.
Burns believes the situation was based on complete ignorance of his condition and diabetes as a whole. Others have told him the incident isn’t the first in which a diabetic individual was mistaken for drunk. He hopes by speaking up about his situation he can propel better education about the signs of insulin shock and perhaps protect others from a similar skirmish.
In the wake, Burns is left with souvenirs physical, aesthetic and legal. He still isn’t sure if his left wrist is injured and he can’t turn his head all the way.
"There are club marks on the back of my head and I feel like a train wreck,” he said.
Aside from the aches and pains, Burns is also frustrated with how the incident left his appearance. He has a photo shoot scheduled later this month for the cover of a diabetes magazine.
"This is a great way for Mr. Universe to look,” he said.
In the coming weeks, too, Burns will likely be in court on the charges of assault and resisting arrest. An officer asked him to sign a citation while he was incoherent, Burns said, and he hasn’t had a chance to review it.
Misdemeanors like those charges are not booked into jail and defendants promise to appear in writing on a specific court date, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.
The case has not been forwarded to his office, but Wagstaffe said a primary factor in cases with a possible medical condition is if the person was unconscious or otherwise unable to know what he or she is doing.
Burns, though, is pretty certain he knew what he was doing — having a reaction to a medical condition that has been with him since the age of 7. He said he just wishes the officers responding had known, too,
Michelle Durand can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this story? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.