I give Oprah two thumbs up for the intervention she attempted a few days ago on her Oprah Winfrey Show, “Diabetes: America’s Silent Killer.” She reached her arms out as if embracing the 80 million Americans who have diabetes and pre-diabetes, and declared it’s time for a wake-up call. I hope it will be for the millions who struggle to manage their diabetes and for the six million Americans who have diabetes and don’t yet know it.
By her side were Dr. Oz, heart surgeon and health guru, who got us “oohing” over a pink, healthy kidney, “tsk-tsking” over a crumpled diabetic kidney and brought us to near tears over a forty-four year old woman who’s already lost a leg and is on kidney dialysis. Dr. Ian Smith begged a group of fried chicken-loving, pop-swilling diabetic church ladies to change their ways. Bob Greene, exercise physiologist and weight loss expert, put the feather-hated church ladies through their paces in the gym and roused them to their feet chanting, “exercise is non negotiable!”
I, like most of the rest of the world, bow at Oprah’s feet for shining a light in our darkest corners. My small request is for a follow-up show to help people make the necessary behavior changes to manage diabetes. As Bob Greene said, “Behavior is the hardest thing to change and people have to rewire themselves.” Meanwhile millions of Americans are eating their way into diabetes and millions with diabetes are eating their way to an early cardiovascular death. As Dr. Oz said, “People do not change their lives based on what they know. They change their lives based on what they feel.” Ah, I agree.
One of the things I do, as a diabetes patient-expert, (that’s a fancy title for someone who has diabetes, knows a lot about it, and is living successfully with it) is educate and inspire fellow patients. I speak at health fairs and conferences and do what Oprah did today, well without the guests and video footage. Watching the show, I remembered a talk I gave to about 50 patients last year where something surprising happened.
I was double-billed with a diabetes educator. The educator’s talk preceded mine so I sat back and listened. For 45 minutes she talked about nothing but target weights, blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride target ranges, carbohydrate counting, portion sizes and how long to exercise. I saw people’s eyes glaze over until the light went completely out. They had heard this a million times.
What they needed was the acknowledgment that diabetes can be tough to live with — the encouragement that they can do it and a path, as Dr. Oz said, to changing their life because of what they hold most dear. I spoke into that empty space the educator left. After taking the stage, I first shared my own shock and fear hearing my diagnosis of diabetes thirty-eight years ago, my subsequent denial, and my diabetic complications from that denial. The room quieted. They saw I knew how they felt, sometimes confused, sometimes overwhelmed, often exhausted.
“When you’re so busy testing your blood sugar every day,” I said, “reading labels, counting carbs, taking your meds, trying to exercise, do you stop to think why you’re doing all this work? Isn’t it to see your grandchildren grow up, start that second career, grow prized roses, contribute something to the world or have another million days with your spouse?” People leaned forward and heads nodded. Someone understood and was acknowledging this piece of living with diabetes — where their heart resides, along with their anguish and struggle.
People are dying, literally, to have their health care providers help them with the emotional stamina needed to live well with diabetes. Diabetes requires that we weather our health’s ups and downs, day after day, forever, with no break, and that we have the emotional resilience to keep on keepin’ on, and bounce back when times are tough. Unfortunately, most medical professionals have little to no training in this area. They are trained to cut and cure.
If you have diabetes ask yourself, “What makes it worth it to me to take care of my diabetes?” If you have patients with diabetes ask your patients this question. Most often this question is never asked, yet the answer often begins, and sustains, our commitment to our health.
Type 2 diabetes is preventable, treatable and for some, reversible. I hope, like Oprah does, that her show saves millions of lives, and I know that when you name that thing that’s truly important to you, you will feel your reason to change, and save your own life.
Originally published in The Huffington Post.