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Della Reese’s positive attitude has always helped her survive—overcoming childhood challenges of poverty, struggling to carve her place in America’s entertainment industry, and dealing with her type 2 diagnosis nearly four years ago while filming the CBS TV show “Touched by an Angel.”
In addition to being a successful actor, Reese is a singer and an active ordained minister in Los Angeles.
“I’m a positive person,” says Reese, speaking with Diabetes Health. “I was born in the slums of Detroit, Michigan. I was aggressive. I made up my mind to succeed, and I stuck to it.”
She has put the same determination into controlling diabetes.
“I do this in all situations in my life. When they told me I had diabetes, I got information on what it is and what I could do about it.”
In the Spotlight Her Whole Life
Reese started singing at age 6.
As a teenager, she toured with the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
At 18, Reese was the first performer to bring gospel music to Las Vegas casinos. On television, she has made more than 300 guest appearances on popular talk and entertainment shows and has appeared as a regular cast member on nearly 30 programs since 1966.
Reese has received nominations for two Grammy awards, two Emmy awards, two Screen Actors Guild awards and one Golden Globe award. She has had numerous gold records. For the past three years, she has received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Drama Series.
Learning of Her Diabetes Diagnosis on ‘Angel’ Set
Reese is possibly best known for starring as the angel Tess in the TV drama “Touched by an Angel,” which has just ended a nine-year run on CBS.
The show features a trio of angels who are dispatched from heaven with the special mission of helping people who face unforeseen crossroads in their lives.
Reese learned of her diabetes during a filming session on the TV show’s set in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It was an outdoor scene,” Reese recalls. “Wynonna Judd was singing, and I was directing her back-up choir. I heard the word ‘action,’ but I was not aware of anything that was going on until I heard the director scream, ‘Cut!’ I staggered over to a fence. Seeing the condition I was in, they sent a doctor to the set. I was hospitalized for three days.”
Reese notes that she hadn’t exhibited symptoms earlier, so she doesn’t know how long she might have had type 2 diabetes, which can remain unnoticed for years before it is discovered and treated.
Before the incident on the set, Reese comments, all she knew of the disease was that her mentor, Mahalia Jackson, had died from it and that Ella Fitzgerald had lost not only her legs but also her life to diabetes.
“It was like a death knell,” Reese remembers. But she now knows that “with information, I have the power to fight it.”
Learning to Help Herself
Reese lives with her husband, Franklin Thomas Lett, in their Los Angeles home. Together, the couple learned about diabetes from books and from her doctor.
“We found out diabetes does not have to be lethal,” Lett says. “Then she adopted a regimen of diet, exercise and medication. It’s a matter of matching portion sizes and times to medication.”
The couple loves walking, and they even bought a treadmill when Reese was diagnosed.
At War With Diabetes
Reese is a strong, decisive and determined woman. She has known diabetes as a disease that claimed the lives of her closest friends and loved ones.
Today, she speaks with steady, definitive passion. She’s made up her mind to succeed:
“I’m at war with this. I’m fighting for the quality of my life. I intend to keep my legs. I intend to not be blind and to keep my kidneys working well. I don’t need a stroke or a heart attack.”
Reese’s message to other people with diabetes:
“You don’t have to die from this. You can live with this. You’re in a war for the quality of your life. Sure, you have to cut a little bit here and a little bit there, but you can live with a good quality of life.”
In October 2003, Reese launched a national consumer education campaign called “Della Reese: Stronger Than Diabetes.” Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of the type 2 drug Avandia, the campaign aims to educate people with type 2 about the importance of aggressive testing and treatment in order to prevent complications such as heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.
The campaign will give away free motivational CDs to help people stay active, along with an information booklet containing tips from Reese on managing type 2 diabetes. You can get the CD and booklet by calling (866) 463-6342 or visiting www.delladiabetes.com.
Paralleling Her Character Tess
Reese’s real-life perspective parallels that of Tess, the character she portrays on television.
The angels on “Touched by an Angel” don’t come to earth to “fix” people who are in trouble. Rather, they teach people how to fix themselves. They help people who are at a crossroads.
“If people see hope—see that life is not all about oppression, depression and suppression—and have their eyes opened, then they can become their own miracle,” says Reese.
And Della is indeed her own positive force—her own miracle.
“I’m on this, honey. I’m not going to come up with any high sugars or low sugars on the set,” she asserts. “I’m consciously aware of this and taking care of it.”
Q: What is an example of a typical day for you?
A: I deal with preparing my husband’s breakfast, and then I prepare my ministry lessons and work on anything else on our schedule. The only thing I do now that I didn’t do before is that I test my blood sugar frequently. I always did TV shoots. You don’t have to change your life just because you have diabetes. You just change your mind and the things that you do against this disease.
Q: How did your work on “Touched by an Angel” —and your ministry— help you deal with your diabetes?
A: I’m a very spiritual person. I consider myself to be a special, personal friend of God. I will call on Him at any time, anywhere. I believe He will give me the strength to do what I need to do. My life experiences will help me, too.
Q: How did you take charge, take control of diabetes and turn your life around?
A: I follow my health plan. And I also have a healthcare helper: my husband. I couldn’t make it without my husband. You should find someone who is interested in you and will help you make the right decisions.
A Plan for Controlling Blood Glucose Levels
Reese takes 4 mg of Avandia twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. She tests her blood glucose levels several times each day, prepares foods with less fat and watches her portion sizes.
“I’m very proud. This is absolute boasting. When I was made aware that I had this thing attacking my body, my blood glucose level was 275 mg/dl,” she says. “And if I ate anything, it was 350 mg/dl. But this morning it was 75. And most days I average about 97.”
Although Reese has never cared for exercise, she now manages to fit it into her regimen.
“My body is astounded if I do any exercise at all. But I have a stationary bicycle that I ride at six five-minute intervals while I watch TV. I do this for a total of 30 minutes.”
Della Reese’s Tricks for Dieting
Reese says her secret to controlling blood glucose levels is food preparation.
“I like to eat—and I can still eat,” she acknowledges. “I make meals that taste very good with spices and seasonings, so they don’t exceed the calories or contents that I should put in my body.”
She does some things differently now that she knows about her type 2 diabetes—for example, she carries snacks, her favorite sweetener and seasonings for when she eats out.
Reese loves ice cream. But now she just eats less of it—and never near bedtime.
“I used to think it was stupid to go to bed without eating ice cream,” she laughs. Then, becoming more serious, she adds, “But if you change your mind, you can change your life. I now know that I can’t eat a half-pint of ice cream every night and expect to have the same quality of living for the rest of my life. Now I’m confronted with insulin resistance if I don’t watch my portion sizes.”
Her husband, Franklin Thomas Lett, comments that before the diagnosis, “both of us loved desserts and sweets. Now we both monitor what comes in the house, to take temptation away. And when we go out, if there’s a dessert we both feel we deserve—we share it.”
Reese tests her blood glucose levels every morning, and often before and after meals. But some days are just busier than others, she admits.
“Yesterday I only tested once because I was in the middle of a television shoot. But today I’ll probably test about three times, just to make sure.”
“She’s been hitting perfect scores,” says Lett. “I’m very impressed with the way that she’s handled this.”
Dec 1, 2003
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.