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Diabetes has weaved its way into three generations of my family.
Let me start with my maternal grandmother, Helen. Helen had diabetes and lived to the age of 73. We all assumed that she didn’t do a good job with it, as we would often find candy wrappers under her bed. When it came to taking care of herself, Helen was my mother’s role model.
She was not a good model. That’s why I vividly remember my mother toward the end of her life as she lay in a hospital bed, suffering from the many complications brought on by her diabetes: blindness, neuropathy, bad circulation, chafi ng skin and multiple strokes.
While she was still able to talk (before another stroke took that away), my mother told me she regretted how diabetes had taken its toll on her. I thought I would live as long as my mother,” she said. “If I could do it all over again, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Our big family was all there, holding her hand and wishing for the best. She later slipped into a coma and, with a hospice’s help, she passed away peacefully at my home. She had been diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 50, and her complications started at age 62. She was 65 when we buried her.
My paternal grandmother lived in Baghdad and died in 1978 from diabetes complications as well. Back in the 70’s her diabetes education had been quite simple: Use saccharine with your chai instead of sugar. She didn’t have an opportunity to learn about the glycemic diet and how it could impact her blood sugars. Although nothing outside of the Middle East rivals great Iraqi cooking, it was still a diet heavy with rice and homemade breads – not exactly the best ingredients for keeping blood sugars down.
And now my generation has diabetes calling. Can we make a difference? Read on and see.
My Brother: Like Mother, Like Grandmothers
My brother Jamal recently came to visit from Australia. He was diagnosed with diabetes in 1997. The last time he had been in the United States was for my mother’s funeral.
For the last five years my brother had felt terrible. His vision was foggy and he had not slept through the night for at least three years because of his high blood sugars and frequent trips to the bathroom. Sleep deprivation, exhaustion and struggling to make it through the day were commonplace conditions for him.
I couldn’t wait to ask him about his diagnosis and the treatment he had been following. When he arrived, my sister Mimi picked him up at the airport and took him out to eat at his favorite Bay Area places. She treated him to Chinese food with fried rice and noodles, followed by ice cream for dessert.
Later, when I called my sister to check in, she talked with me about her evening with Jamal. I asked her about his blood sugars after dinner. She told me, “The meter says ‘hi.’” I was confused. “The meter said ‘hi?’” “No,” she said, “‘high,’ like in ‘up there.’”
I was upset. I remembered my days at our company, Sugar Happy Diabetes Supplies, where I taught people how to use meters. When a meter said “high,” that meant the reading was so high it was off the charts. On Jamal’s meter, “high” meant over 550 mg/dl!
My first reaction was that my sister was responsible for this. I blamed her for feeding Jamal the wrong food and helping his blood sugars skyrocket. I was just plain scared for him – so scared, I blurted out, “Mimi, you might as well drive Jamal to the Golden Gate Bridge and have him jump off!”
Later, my business partner Scott reminded me that my sister was not responsible for Jamal’s blood sugars. I knew he was right, but I had been there with my grandmother and mother when they had faced the devastating complications of diabetes. I don’t want my brother to go through the same thing. And I don’t want to hear him utter from a
hospital bed, “I wish I had known better.”
Once I caught up with my brother, I asked him about his average blood sugar. He told me it hovered around 450-500. I asked him what type of treatment his doctor was prescribing. He said that he had been put on metformin and that his dose recently had been doubled.
Our Family Intervenes
It clearly was time for family intervention. I called one of our family doctors and asked him to put my brother on an aggressive treatment to bring down his blood sugars. Scott and I took Jamal aside and gave him a mini-course about diet and which foods raise BG’s. Our doctor started him on NovoLog fast-acting insulin. He started taking 5 units every two hours until his BGs came down. And, boy, did he start feeling better!
Armed with a new meter, insulin and a carb counting book, Jamal was able to bring his average from 450 to around 160 in the month he was with us. On his last day in the United States he took his blood sugar at the airport and had a reading of 140.
A Different Man
I was so happy that he came here when he did. He left feeling the best he had felt in years. He went back to Australia armed with his new knowledge and food, his blood sugar and injection logbook, and a determination to show his doctor his newfound energy and clarity.
His Australian doctor is providing him with aggressive treatment for his high blood sugar, including insulin. In the meantime, Jamal now understands the importance of testing, making better glycemic food choices and lowering his blood sugars with insulin.
He would not be at this stage if his family had not been there to firmly, but lovingly, show him what he had to do. In a way, the suffering of his mother and grandmothers, which made an indelible impression on all of us, was vindicated. We remember their suffering, and we feared we were seeing Jamal heading down the same path. That gave us the courage to intervene. I really hope he and I can reach a ripe old age together.
Let’s all work together to make a difference.
May 15, 2008
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.