Diabetes Success Stories
Hometown heroes share their victories
SUCCESS WITH DIABETES comes in many shapes and sizes. Sure, it takes the form of rugged Jay Cutler hurling a football into the end zone or baby-faced Nick Jonas crooning in the limelight. But success can also be measured in far less glamorous ways: injecting your own insulin for the first time, say, or lowering your A1C a percentage point. Or taking an even smaller step toward a healthier life. On the following pages, 11 people with diabetes share their stories of victory—from playing professional tennis to beating loneliness to coming to terms with a tough diagnosis. Each defines success differently, but all celebrate the daily triumphs that have helped them reach their goals.
Success is ... having a healthy baby
Elizabeth Edelman / 28
"Ever since I got married, my endocrinologist would always joke with me: 'Oh, it's time to get pregnant!' " says Elizabeth Edelman, a blogger with Diabetes Daily who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was 23 years old. "When we were ready to start trying, I talked to my endocrinologist and he gave us the green light." At the outset, Edelman had a plan: She would maintain an A1C of 6 percent or lower for her entire pregnancy, and she would have a completely natural birth.
Not surprisingly, that took a huge amount of effort. Edelman tracked her glucose levels with a continuous glucose monitor, faxed a log of her blood glucose readings to her endocrinologist each week for suggested adjustments to her treatment, and kept pregnancy cravings in check. "You always hear, 'Oh, when you're pregnant, you're eating for two,' " she says. "But you only need an extra 300 to 500 calories per day. That's not a lot." To make sure her blood glucose was in control during delivery, Edelman had her husband test her throughout labor.
The attention to detail paid off: Her A1C hovered around 5 percent throughout the nine months, she was able to give birth without drugs, and on Oct. 31, 2008, Edelman had a 6-pound, 1-ounce baby girl named Leah. "I have the funniest and most adorable baby, and that alone is a success," she says. "But I worked my butt off to make sure everything went well."
Photograph: Greg Ruffing/Redux
Success is ... making the Junior Wimbeldon finals
Jordan Cox / 17
Tennis is in Jordan Cox's blood. His parents played in a local league, and his older brother, Brad, now competes for the University of Kentucky. Jordan caught the bug at age 8, and earlier this year he knocked out dozens of title hopefuls in the Junior Wimbledon tournament to finish second after Russian Andrey Kuznetsov. Now he's joined the pros.
The tennis phenom's record speaks for his natural ability, but what makes his story more phenomenal is the fact that Cox has had type 1 diabetes since he was 4 years old. "I try and forget about it a little bit out there," he says. "I don't want to make excuses." Off court, Cox is fully aware of his diabetes, monitoring how his demanding daily schedule—five to six hours of practice plus an hour or two lifting weights or running, punctuated by two breaks and lunch—affects his blood glucose levels. "During matches, the adrenaline kicks in and that makes the glucose go higher," he says. "When I get high, it can affect some things on court." To make sure he's in control, Cox tests his glucose before every match. "You can't let [diabetes] hold you back," he says. "You can still achieve whatever you want."
Success is ... quitting smoking
Terry Keelan / 53
Culver City, Calif.
In 2002, Terry Keelan was a pack-a-day smoker and self-described couch potato. "I ate doughnuts for breakfast. I didn't get any exercise at all. I had a high-stress job. I rarely went to the dentist or doctor," he recalls. But a diagnosis of diabetes (he has an adult-onset form of type 1 diabetes called latent autoimmune diabetes of adulthood, or LADA) changed that. After two years of trying to beat his addiction with nicotine inhalers and gum, Keelan quit cold turkey. Then he followed up that first victory with another: He ran the Los Angeles Marathon—twice. "I think in many ways diabetes was kind of a blessing for me. It woke me up," he says. Otherwise, "I'd still be smoking and sitting on my rear end."
Success is ... losing 100 pounds
Valerie Pennington / 46
Valerie Pennington's path to healthy living started at the bookstore. Just diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Pennington found herself in an information limbo, waiting for her diabetes education classes to start. "As an educator, I believe in learning about things and never stopping," says Pennington, who works with parents of special-needs children. By reading up on diabetes, she learned about lifestyle changes that could affect her health. "I started to journal what I ate right away," she recalls. "I looked at my portions, and I ate way too many carbs. And I wasn't eating enough fruits and vegetables." Logging each of her meals helped her overhaul her diet by identifying mindless munching and flat-out unhealthy food choices. And rewarding herself with a once-a-month splurge meal gave Pennington a reason to stay on track the rest of the time.
Exercise also played a critical role, though Pennington will admit it wasn't pleasant at first. "I got out, I walked around the block, and I thought I was going to die," she says. But about a year later, Pennington was able to join her college-age son on a 6-mile mountain hike in Colorado. Now she tracks her steps with a pedometer (she'll even stop at a Walmart during road trips to rack up 12,000 steps by walking the store's aisles) and gets more quality time with her husband since they're walking partners. She's lost 100 pounds, lowered her blood pressure and cholesterol enough to quit medications, and dropped nearly 3 percentage points on her A1C. Though sustaining her healthy habits takes daily determination, Pennington is glad she can take charge of her health. "Remembering those in my family who had passed because of cancer," she says, "I knew that had they been given the chance for making things better with diet and exercise, they would have jumped at the chance."
Photograph: Dan Videtich
Success is ... never settling
Donald Drewry / 49
For Donald Drewry, learning that he had type 2 diabetes set his healthy lifestyle in motion. After his October 2008 diagnosis, Drewry, the CEO of a jet engine test equipment company, vowed to reduce his risk for diabetes complications. "It seemed that I needed to be an active patient," he says. "My doctor cared, but not as much as me." So Drewry pored over books and medical journals. He worked out one to two hours a day. And he stopped eating refined grains, opting for "superfoods" like salad greens, yogurt, and berries instead.
"When I read what type 2 diabetes could do to you and [when I knew] that I clearly had it, my goal was to get under 200 pounds," he says. Five months later, Drewry had lost 45 pounds and normalized his formerly high blood pressure. Now, he says, eating right is part of who he is. "When they say it's not a diet, it's a lifestyle—I bought into that," he says.
Drewry is now managing his diabetes with diet and exercise alone, but he continues to test his blood glucose multiple times a day. "We had a wellness checkup at my company, and the visiting doctor told me that I had the best readings for someone with type 2 diabetes he had encountered," he says, crediting his stellar numbers to an unwillingness to settle for OK. "My goal is to have diabetes impact my chances for complications no more than a nondiabetic. That's why my goals are no different than a nondiabetic person," he says. "If I settle, I have a higher risk for some of the complications. And I don't believe in settling."
Photograph: John Noltner
Success is ... running three marathons
Kristen Haury / 25
Diabetes interrupted Kristen Haury's training plans. The then 22-year-old had been preparing for her first marathon for a month when she was diagnosed with type 1. It sidelined her for the race, but it didn't keep Haury, a high school teacher, out of action for long. "At first, I thought, 'Oh great, this is the end of [running],' " she says. "But my doctor said, 'You can do this. You're just going to have to figure out how this can work for you.' " Haury altered her training: She now runs with a group that knows she has diabetes, and brings along a meter, cell phone, and a source of glucose. During a race, her husband stands on the sideline, meter in hand, ready to test her. "It becomes second nature," she says. "I don't have to think about it anymore."
Three months after being diagnosed, she crossed the finish line for a short-distance triathlon and has since done four more triathlons and three marathons. This, for Haury, is success. "It's being able to do anything you want to do in life," she says. "Sure, you may need to stop and check your blood sugar, but you can do what you love."
Success is ... learning to love who you are
Larissa Tripp / 31
Larissa Tripp used to be a rebel. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 13, she was less concerned with managing her disease than she was with being a typical teen. "A lot of my teenage years I was in denial," she says. She would leave her meter at home when she went to school, she never really learned to count carbohydrates, and her blood glucose would skyrocket and crash on a regular basis. Even when she reached adulthood, Tripp was cavalier about diabetes. But things changed when she turned 30. She and her husband decided they were ready for a baby, but, she says, "My doctor said, 'You just simply cannot get pregnant if your A1Cs are 8.' At that time, I thought, 'I really want this.' " She got an insulin pump and a continuous glucose monitor, and started counting carbs, exercising, and monitoring her glucose. After a year, when her A1C dropped to 6.8, Tripp got the OK to get pregnant—and conceived right away.
Then, she had a miscarriage. "I thought, 'This doesn't make sense. I did everything I needed to do. Why didn't this work out for me?' " she says.
Now, less than a year later, Tripp has transformed her attitude toward her diabetes. "It clicked in my head that I need to be happy with myself before I'm able to not just carry a baby but be healthy after childbirth," she says. Tripp and her husband are trying again to have a baby, and in the meantime she's pursuing a career as a counselor so she can help other people with diabetes come to terms with their disease. (You can e-mail her at email@example.com for advice.) "I would not have been able to do it unless I had passed that mental hurdle," she says. "They had to go hand in hand. I had to be able to want to do this. I needed to say, 'My name is Larissa, and I'm a type 1 diabetic.' "
Success is ... being in the top of your class
Claire Mattison / 17
Claire Mattison wanted to be ordinary. At 9 she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, but she soon learned that constant blood glucose checks and insulin injections were uncomplicated compared with being an American tween. "As a girl in middle school and high school, it's just trying to be normal," she says. And yet Mattison is more than normal: She's extraordinary. The high school senior is captain of her school's tennis team, a member of the National Honor Society and the student council, and in the top 5 percent of her class. And she does all of it while keeping her blood glucose levels in check. "A lot of times, when your blood sugars are high or low, you can't focus on anything," she says. If her glucose soars or takes a nosedive, Mattison will miss a class or head home. To make up for any lost time, she shows up before school to go over missed work with her teachers. "[Being in the top 5 percent], for me, shows my dedication and perseverance. Even though some of these things are holding me back, it shows how I'm able to accomplish this feat," she says.
Success is ... learning to weight train
Chuck Keyserling / 67
About four years ago, almost a decade after he had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, Chuck Keyserling had one of those "aha" moments. He was at the gym, cashing in on a free personal training session, when his instructor suggested he pump some iron. "No doctor even told me, 'Hey, you should lift weights.' Nobody ever brought it up," he says. "It had never dawned on me." But after that session, Keyserling found that lifting weights helped keep his blood glucose in check. So he talked to his doctor. "She told me [building] muscle mass is one of the best ways to treat diabetes," he says.
Though he had worked out aerobically for years, Keyserling, a retired Defense Department engineer, says strength training has made the biggest difference in his blood glucose control. "The first time I saw [an A1C] under 7 was when I started lifting weights," he says. "I started off with relatively low weights. I've been building up continuously over the years. It's a very slow, steady buildup. That's prevented any injuries or aches." Keyserling sees weight training as a weapon against diabetes-related complications. And being free of diseases like retinopathy, neuropathy, and kidney damage, he says, is a great success.
Success is ... beating loneliness
Kristin Makszin / 27
A year after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Kristin Makszin packed up her life and trekked 5,000 miles from Detroit to the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. She had already applied for a Rotary Foundation scholarship to study for her master's degree in the country when she was diagnosed. "Why wouldn't I go? Even in the hospital I knew I'd go," she says. So Makszin, then 22, stocked up on supplies and shipped off.
What she didn't plan for was loneliness. "I didn't know anybody with diabetes," she says from her home in Budapest, where she's studying for her PhD. (That one-year trip became five when Makszin met and married her husband.) "I always thought of myself as a very independent person, but I started to burn out," she says. Then she stumbled upon TuDiabetes, an online community where people with diabetes swap stories, share gripes, give advice, and rejoice in one another's triumphs. Makszin started by posting a question on the site when she was experiencing lows after injecting her fast-acting insulin. Quickly, she received detailed responses about the timing of pre-meal insulin. "I remember thinking, 'How did I not know this?' Maybe my doctor said this, but I didn't remember," she says.
Now, she visits the site constantly. "It's really just knowing that I'm not alone," she says. "We live this lifestyle where we wake up every day and think, 'What's my blood sugar?' Just knowing that there are hundreds of other people who wake up every day and check their blood sugars—it's an emotional connection. It's getting rid of that isolation that comes with diabetes."
Success is ... realizing your goals
Marcia Stone / 56
Even before she was diagnosed, Marcia Stone was no stranger to diabetes. Her father and five of her mother's siblings have diabetes; her maternal grandfather died of complications of diabetes; and two uncles lost limbs because of uncontrolled blood glucose. Stone's mother (who doesn't have diabetes) worked for the Tulsa, Okla., office of the American Diabetes Association, and Stone watched her give presentations on the disease many times. But when she was diagnosed with type 2 about 15 years ago, Stone wasn't ready to overhaul her lifestyle. "I was in denial for a long time, and I thought, 'I can handle this with shots.' I thought, 'I don't need [diet and exercise],' " she says.
Over the years, Stone, a member of the Cherokee and Kiowa tribes, gained motivation. "I needed to see my children graduate at least from high school. I wanted to take a cruise. I wanted to celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary," she says, rattling off the goals that inspired her. She threw away her oversized plates and started using smaller ones to downsize her portions. She began ordering healthier options, like grilled chicken, at restaurants. Thanks to a stint as a caterer, she learned to turn meals laden with fat, sodium, and carbohydrates into diabetes-friendly dishes. Then, when her daughter suggested that they join a gym a year and a half ago, Stone accepted. She has walked the treadmill three days a week since. She logs 500 steps a day just walking from her parking space to her desk at Cherokee Nation Entertainment, where she works as a policy administrator. And when her children were both married this fall, she was able to dance at their weddings.
Photograph: Scott Raffe