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“All this is an awakening”: 3 stories of living well with diabetes

Christina Joseph By Christina Joseph
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“When you’re dealing with a chronic ailment, it’s hard to adjust mentally to how your life is going to change,” says Craig Kasper, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when he was 27. “You start to worry about your mortality, what to eat, how to exercise.” This is the story of three people diagnosed with diabetes or prediabetes who struggled to cope with lifestyle changes, medication, and a new vision of their future. (Spoiler alert: They all get to a better place, and even have fun along the way.)

Diabetes occurs when the body can’t use glucose, a type of sugar that provides energy to our cells. The level of glucose in the blood is controlled by a hormone called insulin, made by the pancreas. In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces little or no insulin. In Type 2, the body doesn’t respond to the insulin that’s made. In both cases, blood sugar levels rise, leading to serious complications. Some people with mildly elevated blood sugar are considered “prediabetic.”

The individuals we spoke with agreed that hearing you’re diabetic can be overwhelming at first. But learning how to manage their condition helped them take control of their overall health and ultimately made them feel stronger mentally and physically.

Read on to learn more about the stories of Crystal, Kelly and Craig ― their accomplishments, setbacks, and advice for the newly diagnosed.

Crystal Y. Thompson, 52.

Type 2. Bronx, New York

When I was diagnosed in 2015, I felt numb. I didn’t know anything about diabetes. It was all new. Since then, I’ve found there’s not just one approach to managing my diabetes; it’s a little of this and a little of that.

To start, the best piece of advice I can give someone who’s been recently diagnosed is to make sure you go to the doctor regularly. That’s when I started educating myself ― about what it is to be healthy and living with diabetes ― and taking advantage of the resources she showed me. Talk to your family too. After my diagnosis, I found out both my mother and grandmother had diabetes.

Woman cooking

Crystal Y. Thompson

Now I understand how important it is to “know your levels.” My doctor and I worked out a schedule for checking my blood sugar. I have to prick my finger to measure it. If I check before a meal, it should be under 140. After a meal, below 200 is ideal. But if I eat too much sugar or too many carbs, it’s going to rise above 200. Then there’s not much I can do. I drink a lot of water. And I know I need to pay more attention to what I eat and make the right choices. 

Taking my medication helps too. I take metformin every day. That was an adjustment, since it was my first time taking prescription drugs. But now I have more energy and can move around better. Before, I felt sluggish. Eventually, I would like to get off medication. That will take a lot of hard work. But in time, God willing, I can do it.

“There’s not just one approach to managing my diabetes. It takes a little of this and a little of that.”

At first, I was having a hard time eating healthy. So when I got an invitation from my local hospital to take a cooking class, I signed up. I started learning about the ingredients that I put into my meals. They stressed using fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. I tweak recipes from the cooking class using my own ingredients. I’ll bake salmon or cook it on the stove and add fresh vegetables on top instead of rice, because I'm weaning myself off starches and eating fewer calories.

Mostly, they wanted us to enjoy cooking. Now I’m making meals at home more with my 30-year-old daughter and sister. We’re having fun. My daughter is making better choices, too. She was addicted to soda, but now she's drinking more water. I want her to be healthier.

I work for the New York City Parks Department. My coworkers and I walk around the park on our lunch hour. It’s great to get out and work up a sweat. We're encouraging other people to go to the park as a way to live healthier, too. We started a Weight Watchers class that meets every Tuesday and a Zumba class every Thursday. I'm trying to get the word out ― I just want to get everyone healthy.  

Learn how friends can keep your workout on track.

Kelly Latimer, 52.

Prediabetes. Houston, Texas

Last summer, I wasn’t feeling well. I was tired; I had headaches. I couldn't sleep through the night. I went to the doctor and asked if he could check my thyroid because a family member suffers from a thyroid condition. When my blood tests came back, he explained I was prediabetic, and that my numbers were really close to being diabetic.

I cried like a baby and wondered what my kids would do without me. I have a 16-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter. I was mostly afraid of injections and possible amputations.

We don’t have a family history of diabetes. But when I was growing up in Chicago, my grandmother cooked meals from her childhood in Tennessee: a lot of fatty meat, greens with fat, corn bread with butter. That’s how we ate and that’s all we knew.

Woman with glasses

Kelly Latimer

It’s funny when I think about it: My elders all lived long lives. Maybe because it was home cooking, never processed or fast food. We weren’t eating all the fake food we eat today. And now that I’m in Texas, the portions are ridiculous.

When you turn 50, everything changes. The things you used to get away with, you can’t anymore. I was always considered small or average, and not because I was athletic or very active. But my weight crept up over the years, and my doctor said dropping some pounds could lower my sugar levels.

My son wanted me to become vegan. We had been trying to make healthy changes before I was diagnosed, but I became so overwhelmed, I just couldn't do it. Still, I knew something had to change. After my diagnosis, my doctor set me up with a dietitian who gave me this great pamphlet on what's good for your body. She talked to me about calories and exercise.

I wanted to be realistic. I took what the dietitian gave me and tried to incorporate it into my real life. I like fruits and vegetables, and she showed me which ones were best and when to eat them. I stopped the pop ― soda. I upped my water intake. Instead of grabbing the potato chips, I would grab a healthy snack.

“Black women need to take care of ourselves first, and put everything else behind that.”

I exercised four or five days a week. I bought a stationary bike and rode it while watching one of my shows for 30 minutes. Or I went to the gym and walked on the treadmill for 30 minutes and used the machines. When I did something crazy, I’d ride my bike longer to counter it. It's all about balance.

From June to November, I lost 30 pounds. Five months is not that long. But riding that bike is not fun for me; I don't enjoy exercise. So I gained back 15 pounds. But I’m still in a good place. I wish I had started this sooner because all my children would know healthy eating is normal eating.

I also know that I need rest. I need serenity. I need happiness and laughter. Self-care is a big thing for me now. I know it sounds cheesy, but self-care is not something black women are good at. We need to take care of ourselves first and put everything else behind that. Once you get to that point, it's life-changing. I have an app called Simple Habit, and every morning at 8:00, I do a little meditation.

All this is an awakening. Life is about abundance and happiness, and you need to get as much out of it as you can.

See how Aetna’s care management program is making a difference for people with Type 2 diabetes.

Craig Kasper, 46.

Type 1, New York, New York

I was diagnosed when I was 27 years old, in 1999. I found myself celebrating Thanksgiving in a hospital bed that year after experiencing sudden hearing loss, a leak under the retina of my left eye, a 30-pound weight loss in about a month, and hallucinations on the train platform. I was admitted to the hospital that day, severely dehydrated, with a blood sugar level above 800.

I was somewhat relieved to find out I was diabetic because I had an answer for why I was feeling so horrible. When you’re dealing with a chronic ailment, it’s really hard to adjust mentally to how your life is going to change. You start to worry about your mortality, what to eat, how to exercise.

Man playing guitar

Craig Kasper

Living with a chronic illness is stressful. There was a lot to learn about measuring my blood sugar, figuring out the amount of insulin I need, and adjusting my dosage for different situations. Music and meditation help me manage it day to day. They say that music “soothes the savage beast.” It has definitely played a huge role in helping me cope with stress. 

Meditation has been a part of my life for 20 years. There's a lot of research that talks about how mindfulness, and meditation in particular, helps reduce cortisol levels in our blood. When I'm more consistent with my meditation practice, I’m less reactive to things that might cause more stress, and that helps me manage my condition better. It doesn’t directly affect my diabetes, but it puts me in the best mindset to take care of myself.

“I was somewhat relieved to find out I was diabetic, because I had an answer for why I felt so horrible.”

But it’s also important to have a support system because diabetes can be an isolating disease. We all feel like we're dealing with it on our own. But there are so many resources out there. My friends and family helped me the most through my diagnosis. The most important thing for anybody who's been recently diagnosed is to find community. The support of a community will help get you through those initial hard days, weeks, months, until you feel you're getting control over something that you believed was uncontrollable.

I started a podcast called The Bravest Life about a year and a half ago. It focuses on people who are dealing with Type 1 diabetes and still accomplishing amazing things in their lives. I’ve spoken to people who have climbed Mount Everest, literally run across the Sahara, and taken a rowboat across the Atlantic Ocean. It’s evolved into something that’s helped a lot of people to realize that diabetes is just a diagnosis. It's not something that should hold us back.

Find out about modern ways to manage your diabetes.