Diabetes awareness easier than you think

Editor's note: Reporter Sheila Hagar is writing about prediabetes education and experiences from a personal perspective in a series of columns, of which today's is the second. This series will not contain every fact about diabetes, nor should it replace medical advice from your physician.

Let me just say something -- if you need to learn about prediabetes and diabetes (and apparently none of us can cross it off the list), start as early as possible.

The amount of information is prodigious, printed in thick brochures and on highly-colored information sheets, and running on what must be thousands of websites.

About the minute you think you've got this thing down, more information arrives.

Despite education and prevention and cute graphics, someone dies every 10 seconds from diabetes in the U.S., Maria Lizotte explained to an assortment of adults at what she calls Diabetes 101.

It was the first of a series of three classes offered by Walla Walla General Hospital. About 15 of us, from middle to advanced age, sat along the perimeter of the U-shape of tables, with our blue-bagged packets of information in front of us.

Some folks had their little blood glucose meter kits, too. More about that later.

We were but a droplet in the ocean of diabetes that is now lapping at the shores America's children stand on. Since 2003, the rate of Type 2 diabetes for our kids has increased by 125 percent.

Hearing that, I mentally reduced the ice cream days at our house from twice a month to once, effective yesterday. More pushups, less Push-Ups.

Diabetes kills more Americans every year than breast cancer and AIDS combined.

Yep, this disease is some bad juju.

In the last 30 years, the whole food picture has changed, Maria said. Her teaching partner, Lynda Bren, nodded in agreement. Soft drinks flooded out of eight-ounce servings to the 44-ounce of Super Big Gulp fame. Hamburgers morphed from modest patties to platter-sized.

"Portion distortion," it's called, explaining why muffins used to be cousins to cupcakes and now are minor planets orbiting Costco and elsewhere.

Eating out became a habit instead of a treat. The hamburger buns and pasta and French fries turned into sugar in our expanding tummies. And sat there.

To add the cherry to the half-carton serving of ice cream, most of us started sitting at desks all day. Our muscles were no longer asking our blood for enough energy to slaughter hogs and walk to the grocery store, post office, the coffee shop and back home.

Genetic and other triggers were ... well, triggered, by our culture of excess, Maria told us.

That doesn't absolve us from personal responsibility for dealing with it now, however. Our "pooped-out" pancreases are crying for help, she said.

So, yes, there is medication to help keep blood sugar under control. And no, that cannot be the only tool in your arsenal, Maria added.

Exercise is a hugely important weapon against developing diabetes, she said. "When you increase muscle mass, the pancreas is happy." And weight over the liver, kidneys, stomach? Such bad news for your body.

Smart nutrition is paramount, too. This part intimidates many of those new to the circle, but reading food labels is the answer, Maria explained to her audience. "If you read the label, you can never be tricked."

As I looked around, I saw a lot of blank looks -- it was obvious several folks here had never looked at a food label in their lives. Many from a couple of generations higher than mine had never needed to understand what those numbers and words meant, I suppose -- this stuff used to be less complicated.

And stress, she pointed out -- "That is the worse on your system than a chocolate chip cookie."

At this point I averted my eyes. I know my stress level is high and I pride myself on handling it pretty well. But am I fooling my body?

Maria's words were meant for me. "If you stay home and put your head under the covers, we can't help you."

The point of the battle is to keep blood sugar numbers within safe ranges. Not a perfect record, Lynda and Maria emphasized, but "75 percent of the time." That means less than a 110 blood glucose count before eating and under 140 two hours after eating.

It's all about balance ... not so high as to go hyperglycemia and not so low as to be hypoglycemic.

Finding those number, or "gathering the data," is where people begin to squirm.

While the blood sugar meters (or monitors) are techie and sleek -- practically "cool," using the little, stabby "lancet" seems like a big deal. "We're going to do what? Push a little button so a needle pops out and pokes a hole in our skin? Then stick that on a little testing strip? Say what?"

It's not. A big deal. It's like brushing your finger over the end of a poky wire stuck way back in your junk drawer, especially compared to what the procedure used to consist of. Here's Maria's description of what she went through as a youngster with Type 1 diabetes:

"Back when I was a kid, I got the first meter out on the market -- bigger and heavier than my cordless phone. 'Accucheck,' it was called. Took TONS of blood. I often had Band-aids on the finger that had been poked.

"It was typical for patients to bring in their paper with the blood glucose numbers on it, covered in blood. Had to carry around big cotton balls to soak up the blood.

"Blood stains were a daily part of life -- clothes, books, bedsheets ... little red drops. Often, because the needle poked so deep, you could just start bleeding from a finger hours after the test."

And the lancet device itself? "It looked like a medieval torture device. It was designed to look like a mini catapult. The needle lancet was on one end. It curved and you place your finger on it, pulled back the spring and visually watched the needle catapult into your finger."

Maria couldn't do the procedure herself for a long time, she recalled. "My dad had to do it for me. We'd sit at the table, cotton balls and Band-aids at the ready. He'd hold my hand tight -- that reaction to jerk away was hard to resist."

I took home a meter and commenced to sweating in my bathroom. The whole process seemed counterintuitive. How much would it hurt? What if I didn't get enough blood? How would I know if I could trust the meter's reading?

Right off, I got a rogue meter. A morning number read "35," which I found highly acceptable and e-mailed Maria with triumph. "If it was really 35, you wouldn't be typing right now," she responded.

I could almost hear her chuckling.

With a new meter in hand, I was back to testing and recording. See what I do for this column?

But when Maria and Lynda say things like, "In Washington state, someone goes blind every day from diabetes," well -- poking my finger seems like no big deal. Not at all.

Our next class would get to the meat of this issue -- learning how to eat, cook and grocery shop with a whole different emphasis. Calorie counting will be down the ladder where carbohydrate numbers stand at the top.

Stay tuned, because it turns out you can still have bacon and red wine.

It's all about balance.


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