Writer takes pre-emptive aim at disease

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Can I just say something? I didn't make it to the YMCA and I feel bad about that.

There. The truth is out.

I was considering fudging on this, but I decided this new series of columns on learning about pre- and full-blown Type 2 (sometimes called "adult onset") diabetes was going to have to go honest or go home.

No, I don't have diabetes -- that horrible, life-sucking disease that robs 26 million people of a full life. Some minimally, others in ways you don't even want to know. I haven't, as my friend John coined it, "joined the club."

But get this -- almost 80 million of us have pre-diabetes, or abnormally high blood sugar. On the road to a worsening health situation.

I might be one. You might be, too.

I have several marks on the list. Genetics, check. My dad was shooting insulin by his early 50s.

Too, I'm definitely "of a certain age," as well as chunky and not likely to be pegged as a gym rat.

Check, check, check.

I wanted to do a column series about the issue after writing about it last year. The more I heard then the more I recognized pre-diabetes is a land mine in most of our lives, even the folks who do get to the Y.

You're not going to get every nugget about diabetes in this series. My goal is to take you on my journey so you can decide if you need to start one of your own. Or at least look at the map.

Here was the plan, then -- I would simultaneously attend education classes at Walla Walla General Hospital while beginning the Y's "On The Edge" program; eight weeks of food logs, focused workouts and group support. Beginning mid-January, just when sins of the holiday season take up permanent residence in our hips.

When I was putting all that together in autumn, it seemed entirely possible. Meet at the Y at 6:15 a.m., four days a week, and done by 7 a.m. I felt myself grow stronger and leaner just thinking about it.

Alas, I had discounted winter. Not only does this newspaper have a 9:30 a.m. deadline to file stories whenever there is snow or ice on the roads, but I'm also kind of a hovering mother. Leaving my daughters pre-breakfast, knowing they would have to walk to school in the dark, was more than I could stomach.

And who knew we were going to have such a wintry winter? For these parts, anyway.

I know. Lame-o, sissy excuses. Easier and oh, so tempting to simply abandon the whole project.

That was before I fully understood what I was up against. That was before Maria Lizotte called.

Maria is one of the diabetes educators at WWGH and part of the leadership team for "On The Edge." Her summons came several days before her education class started. When, she wanted to know, could I come in for my one-on-one session?

I could hardly answer "Never." On Jan. 13, I showed up. And I was nervous. What was I going to learn about myself and what would I have to do?

But she's good at helping people shed guilt and fear, Maria is. She explained there is no "typical" pre-diabetes patient. "We've seen people who are mildly overweight, who are vegetarian, who exercise ... but if they have the genetics, they are pretty much doomed."

She showed me clear plastic tubes, one representing a healthy blood vessel and one ... not so much. The healthy tube was a free-flowing wonder of red "blood" and white beads playing the role of oxygen.

The other liquid was thickened, like maple syrup right out of the fridge. It took some time for the fake blood to move from one end to the other when held straight up.

That, Maria explained, was how blood with a high glucose count acts, moving from end to end like sludge. "This is a damaged blood vessel," she added. Sobering.

Keeping in mind there's not much that is simple about diabetes, here's the short version: Folks with Type 1 diabetes are most likely diagnosed as kids or teens. Their bodies don't produce enough insulin and it's a lifelong issue. Only about five to 10 percent of all diabetes sufferers are in this category.

Type 2 diabetes causes a diminished response to your own insulin. The "doors" to your blood cells won't open when your blood sugar comes knocking, depriving your cells of using it for energy.

According to www. dlife.com, "If glucose can't be absorbed by the cells, it builds up in the bloodstream instead, and high blood sugar is the result. The pancreas keeps increasing insulin production in an effort to keep up with rising blood sugar levels, and high circulating levels of insulin develop, (which) increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

Over time, the high blood glucose levels from uncontrolled diabetes can cause serious long-term health problems with virtually every system in your body."

Yikes.

The good news is that so much of that is preventable and even reversible, Maria told me. The plan is to give me and others the tools for that in a set of three afternoon classes, geared for students from one end of the diabetes spectrum to the other.

If I haven't mentioned this, Maria packs a lot of cheerleading into her compact frame. Her smile rarely leaves her face and she is just one encouraging word after another. I found myself nodding at her every syllable, believing I could live up to her hope in me.

Lifestyle change is called for whenever someone climbs into the pre-diabetic range, she explained. "Don't go for a month or two months with high blood glucose."

But a reality check is also warranted, Maria pointed out. Many of us cannot make enough changes fast enough. "You're not all of a sudden diabetic and only eat vegetables the rest of your life."

Lots of people will need medication to help get things really under control -- And. That. Is. Perfectly. OK, she said. Yes, it's important to stop damaging blood vessels, "but don't beat yourself up over a piece of bread."

Some people simply cannot make the lifestyle changes, Maria said. "They have so much stress already, they just can't add that."

For those folks, facing reality and getting the prescription for a diabetes drug is a better choice than allowing the disease to continue to compromise their health. Sometimes to the point of no return.

And if one medicine doesn't work, try another. "You're just taking care of your blood vessels."

No one is going to get back to where they were in high school, Maria told me. But working with weights and resistance bands, doing some aerobic exercise and reducing carbohydrate intake was going to give my body a chance to retune itself, she promised.

I want to believe her. I do.

Tune in next time when we discuss the joys of tiny stabby things called lancets. And glucose monitoring. Oh, and carb counting!

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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