I remember the moment I first heard about the disease.
I lingered under the birch tree feeling increasingly uneasy as I listened in on my aunt telling my grandmother about her diabetes. The shots and the food restrictions were enough to bear, but my aunt’s dire warnings of the appalling side-effects were grisly details I thought only happened to people you read about.
Worse yet than the horror I felt for her were the alarm bells of my own mortality clanging violently in my skull. If life could deal this good woman that shocking blow, it might surely smite me, too. That summer day was emblazoned in my memory, for as a privileged kid from a good home in a quiet neighborhood in small town middle America, I had always previously felt untouchable.
That was the 70s. And back then my aunt’s diabetes affliction was relatively uncommon. But as the Journal of American Medical Association reported in 2014, things didn’t stay that way forever; the prevalence has quadrupled since 1980, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Worldwide, diabetes killed 1.5 million people in 2012 alone. In fact, diabetes causes more deaths each year than breast cancer and AIDS combined, and having it nearly doubles your chances of having a heart attack.
Here in the U.S. there are 29.1 million people, or 9.3 percent of our population, living with diabetes. Each day more than 3,900 more people are diagnosed, and many of them will first learn that they have the disease when they are treated for one of its life-threatening complications, like heart disease and stroke.
The good news is, with help and treatment, you can drastically reduce your risks of these serious complications and in some cases even reverse the disease.
Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) disease in which one’s blood glucose (blood sugar) levels are consistently high. Over time, this condition can lead to serious damage to the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidney, and nerves. The most common type (type 2) usually occurs in adults when the body becomes resistant to insulin or doesn’t make enough insulin. Type 2 diabetes is largely responsible for the world-wide increases in the disease.
As for me, over the course of those decades, as the worldwide diabetes epidemic unfolded, I turned from a gangly teen into an athletic, non-smoking, very fit and lean individual. My aunt’s story that day under the birch tree became a distant memory, and the information I managed to pick up through the years told me diabetes happened only to folks with far less healthy lifestyles. So, I was admittedly 100 percent unconcerned about diabetes in my own life; and in fact, I was sure it wasn’t worth anyone’s time to bother with a blood test when I showed up at my doctor’s office two years ago for a physical.
But my rock-solid certainty was erased when the results of the routine test revealed my elevated blood sugar and A1C (the average of one’s blood sugar over two or three months). Though my level was not high enough to formally diagnose diabetes, I had pre-diabetes, and that was a fact I had great trouble accepting.
Before the onset of type 2 diabetes, people have pre-diabetes, a condition that puts you at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Since the latter was what killed my father at an all too early age, the news was really troubling for me.
Though diabetes was new to me, it was far from new to the team at Southwest Health, including our Certified Diabetes Educators who work with a great many people, both pre-diabetes, newly diagnosed, and people with diabetes for many years. In fact, since 2005 Southwest Health has offered an American Diabetes Association (ADA) Recognized diabetes education program, with professional staff providing information, consultation, and nutrition and other lifestyle advice. They also offer a monthly diabetes education support group to help people and their families cope with the disease and live their best.
Over that time, the team of registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator Joan Bahr and registered nurse and certified diabetes educator Sandy Andrews have been helping people learn how to manage their diabetes to stay living healthy. Together, they have decades of experience. What’s perhaps just as important as the information they provide is the example they set. Joan and Sandy both live by the advice they offer, eating healthy and well-balanced meals and getting regular exercise, which are big parts of living healthy and well, whether you have diabetes or not.
This team, combined with my doctor, Anna Svircev, DO, opened my eyes and provided the advice I needed to begin moving in a healthier direction. My respect for their knowledge and experience, as well as my friendship with them, helped me accept my status and begin moving in a healthier direction. Though my lifestyle had always included lots of exercise and healthy foods, I was battling a hereditary pre-disposition for diabetes. Basically, it runs in the family, and I was going to have to make some changes to live healthier.
The program at Southwest Health begins with four to five personalized, private, one-on-one sessions. Because they both have specialized expertise, Joan and Sandy work as a team, though they are also both well versed in the entire program and how diabetes can be effectively managed. They also offer annual update consultations and education of up to four hours per person to help keep people on track.
That’s important because managing diabetes is a life-long commitment to healthy living. Their advice includes modifying one’s lifestyle and making small changes over time. Though there are lots of helpful guidelines, recommended changes are highly personalized.
It’s not easy to hear you have diabetes, or pre-diabetes, in my case, but for millions of Americans and untold millions around the world, learning about their disease is the first step to feeling better and living a long and healthy life. The most important rule of thumb to remember with diabetes is there is no need to despair. There are many persistent myths around diabetes that make the lifestyle changes seem far more onerous than they really are. In fact, over time one comes to seep the disease in perspective and to understand that healthy food and healthy lifestyle changes can bring lots of joy to life, in addition to more healthful living.
Recently, the diabetes education program at Southwest Health was granted a renewed education recognition status by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). The ADA advocates the program as an essential component of effective diabetes treatment and assures the Southwest Health team meets all appropriate national standards.
In addition, it is an honor to note that Joan Bahr just recently earned her Board Certification in Advanced Diabetes Management, an achievement that very few in her field of expertise ever reach.
As for me personally, I’ve managed to make a few key changes in my lifestyle that helped me reduce my blood sugar readings and get my own condition back in the normal range. That’s a great feeling, and it’s good to know such changes are not only possible, but are also made every day by people with diabetes.
But it doesn’t happen without a little help. The first step, like my own first step, was getting in to see a doctor to get my blood sugar checked. Everyone should know where they stand. And certainly everyone should have a chance to manage the disease before those life-threatening complications rear up.
So see your primary medical practitioner today to check this off your list. Or if you have been diagnosed and need to schedule a consultation with Joan or Sandy, or if you want to find out about their monthly Diabetes Healthy Living presentations, call (608) 342-4709. For information on diabetes anytime, you can also visit the ADA online at diabetes.org.