She Helps Her People Avoid Diabetes

Helen Oliff, for National Relief Charities

Lynn Cuny

Dec 7, 2011

"I wasn't even addressing my high blood pressure until my uncle Jay, in a nursing home at 36, said ‘Don't get diabetes.' ‘I won't,' I promised  him, and it changed my life."

A 32-year-old Native American woman from South Dakota, Lynn Cuny is of Crow Creek Dakota and Oglala Lakota heritage. Also known as "She Helps Her People," Lynn is living an empowered "life choice" that, despite heredity and predisposition, helps her avoid diabetes.

This path led Lynn, a former Head Start teacher for the Pine Ridge Reservation, to become a certified personal trainer. She is also a health technician for a Special Diabetes Prevention Program in South Dakota, where she works with people who are prediabetic.

This year, Lynn teamed up with National Relief Charities (NRC) on a diabetes-related project sponsored by General Mills. NRC is a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life for Native Americans living on poverty-stricken reservations. Together, Lynn and NRC are developing and delivering a health-and-fitness curriculum for Head Start children and families on the Crow Creek Reservation.

The youth on Crow Creek are at high risk of diabetes and obesity. One aim of the project is to teach them the benefits of physical activity and good nutritional choices at an early age, in the hope of averting diabetes. This culturally relevant curriculum will likely be a model that can be replicated for other reservation Head Starts.

American Indian people have the highest rate of diabetes of any ethnic group in the world. Lynn is familiar with this both personally and professionally. Her uncle Jay developed diabetes when he was only eight years old. Before he died, he asked one thing of Lynn: "Don't become a diabetic." At first she laughed it off, believing that he must be joking because her fate was already sealed.

Fortunately, Lynn was mistaken.  Her uncle helped her see that diabetes could be avoided if she took control and helped herself. It took an experienced loved one to help her understand that even though her maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, paternal grandfather, and uncle developed diabetes, she didn't have to.  She had a choice. Uncle Jay's teachings and his passing  inspired Lynn with the clarity and motivation to ward off diabetes.

At the time, Lynn was on the fast food track. As a struggling college student in Albuquerque, she held three jobs to cover tuition, so it seemed fortunate that her boyfriend worked at McDonald's and could get free cheeseburgers. A diet full of starch and devoid of vegetables fit well with her schedule and budget, but her health was spinning out of control. By her early twenties,  Lynn had been hospitalized three times for blackouts from high blood pressure.  She had numbness in her hands and feet, at times so severe that she couldn't get up. The Indian Health Service diagnosed her as prediabetic.  

After her promise to her uncle, Lynn got busy taking off the weight. A Diabetes Prevention Program study shows that people with prediabetes can reduce their risk of diabetes by 58 percent if they lose just five to seven percent of their body weight. Exercising is most important: It supports weight loss and helps muscle cells use glucose.  Starting at around 300 pounds, Lynn walked a lap, then a few,  then ran a lap for her uncle, then spent 10 minutes on a treadmill or bike, and eventually began a mix of exercise and workout routines.  "I wanted to feel stronger and healthier. It got easier once I got out there," she says. She knew that she was turning a corner when it felt okay for people to see her 50, 60, and then 70 pounds lighter.

Changing eating habits was harder. From an early age, Lynn craved carbs, soda, and coffee with lots of sugar. In college, she added supersized burgers. She went through a steep learning curve on the kinds of foods that would keep her healthy and give her the fuel to maintain her exercise and lifestyle. "All the things I craved were not healthy, and all the things I never ate as a child were the foods I needed to eat," she says.  

After a year of abstinence from cheeseburgers - her former "go to" food - Lynn told herself that she could eat just one. To her surprise, it made her feel tired and sick. Giving up coffee took a while too; she felt withdrawal giving it up. But she persisted, and today she enjoys chicken, fish, buffalo, plain salads and fresh raw vegetables, beans for protein and fiber, wheat or multigrain bagels or toast, oatmeal, and flax. She is healthy and "she helps her people." Coffee and cheeseburgers are a distant memory.



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Categories: Diabetes and Obesity, Changing Eating Habits , Crow Creek Dakota, Crow Creek Reservation, Diabetes, Diabetes, Exercise and Workout Routines, Food, Head Start, Indian Health Service, Losing weight, Lynn Cuny, National Relief Charities, Native American, NRC, Oglala Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, Prediabetes, She Helps Her People

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Posted by Anonymous on 8 December 2011

I must say I am a resident of Rapid City, SD and have the honor of getting to meet Lynn when she was at 300 lbs. Today, seeing Lynn, she is absolutely an angel! Not only does she help her people, she is a living example of all the good to come, should you choose a personal path for the better. One day at a time. I felt like crying, because I too, have the same story of a loved one who has passed on from complications of diabetes. Also, almost my entire family, a diabetic Thank you Lynn Cuny! YOU ARE TRUELY AN INSPIRATION!

Posted by Anonymous on 9 December 2011

I am confused, why is she called "She helps her people"? The article only covers how she helped herself. It should cover what is she doing to help others, and maybe show the poster behind her in the picture, and other ways she teaches. Yes it states she teaches, and has teamed up with NRC, but nothing about what is being done. I am a RN on the Navajo Rez, and would liked info on what is being done, to use here. It is a great story on how an individual beat prediabettes.

Posted by NRC on 14 December 2011

Dear Anonymous: "She Helps Her People" is Lynn's actual name, given to her by her Lakota grandmother. In traditional Native American cultures, an elder, spiritual leader, or relative within the tribal community will give an "Indian name" to a member at birth, puberty, or later in life. The name is unique to each individual and often related to a rite of passage, life event, or accomplishment, as is the case with Lynn She Helps Her People.

We mentioned in the story that Lynn is helping many people through her work at the diabetes prevention program and also helping young people on the Crow Creek Reservation through her work with National Relief Charities. This story was published to send a message of hope that people can "avoid" diabetes, which is no small feat. It was never intended to be a "how to" story. But your comment makes us think that a "how to" story would be a good follow up, so we'll be writing one soon. We hope you'll watch for it on this web site.

Posted by Anonymous on 7 February 2012

I've heard this story before and i agree it is a very inspiring story. I myself can relate so much to a close family member losing their life due to unhealthy lifestyles. so i choose to change mine in order to not only bring wellness to myself but to be a positive role model to the younger generation as well. so i congratulate this individual on the things she is accomplishing. But there is always that other side of the story to everything. we can teach our children or those who wish to live better but we got to teach them the right way.When we want to help a person or people we have to live our lives in a way we are trying to teach. So if we want people just to work on their health but still carry the negative characteristics then that is just setting up those individuals to fail once again. to be lakota or any other tribal affiliation means that each have their own value system and spirituality. so if these are incorporated with developing a healthy lifestyle then it will be a more successful individual. which translates to wellbriety. so i encourage those who wish to help their native communities to not only practice what you preach but also look deep down inside yourself and conquer your personal demons before you try to help others. because we are all out to help our people the best way we can and if we still carry unhealthy characteristics or uresolved issues then we can damage others more than help.

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