People to Know 2018: S. Epatha Merkerson
S. Epatha Merkerson was in her mid-40s and starring as Lt. Anita Van Buren on Law & Order when she took the first step toward a healthier lifestyle. It seemed straightforward enough: She’d quit smoking and watch her health improve. And it worked, at first. She successfully gave up cigarettes but soon found herself substituting one unhealthy habit with another.
“Instead of smoking, I was eating like I was 12 years old,” she says. “I am a huge fan of chocolate, and I love cookies. I was also eating a lot of fast food and not eating things like veggies or lean meats. Viewers got to sit back and watch me get fat.”
In 2003, not long after Merkerson set out to improve her health, she got a call from a doctor who wanted to review the results of a blood glucose test she’d gotten on a whim at a health fair. At the time, the Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning actress assumed the physician was having a fan moment. “I thought he wanted an autograph or photo with me,” jokes the star of Chicago Med. And although she never expected a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, she admits she “should have seen it coming.”
That’s because being African American put her at greater risk, her father died from complications of diabetes at age 57, and other members of her extended family struggled with the disease. “After I talked to my primary care physician to confirm my own diagnosis, I realized I had been living with symptoms like peeing every five minutes,” says Merkerson, now 65. Looking back, she acknowledges she might have spotted such classic symptoms of diabetes if her family hadn’t treated the disease as a secret.
Merkerson recalls seeing her dad, aunt, and grandmother taking insulin but says somehow the conversation about diabetes never happened. She’d often hear family members discuss their health in hushed tones. “There was always this sort of non-conversation type of conversation about someone who had ‘a touch of sugar,’ ” she says. “Now that I have diabetes, I realize there’s no such thing as ‘a touch.’ You either have diabetes or you don’t. And if you do, you better take care of yourself.”
Within days of her diagnosis, Merkerson phoned her mother to share the news. “That’s when I realized the enormous repercussions of not talking about things that happened to people in our family,” she says. “Diabetes isn’t a taboo, but we had been treating it like one.”
One of the first things Merkerson’s doctor prescribed was a change in lifestyle. Even though she’d gained over 40 pounds since snuffing out her smoking habit, and her 5-foot 6-inch frame had grown to a size 14, the actress was in denial; she couldn’t accept the importance of diet and exercise. “I struggled with a period of disbelief that I had diabetes and needed to take care of it,” she says. “It took a while to figure out how to live with diabetes.”
Eventually, Merkerson “got on board” with the reality of how her lifestyle impacted her health with the help of some tough love from her endocrinologist. “At one checkup, he told me I was fat and needed to lose weight to get my A1C to a healthy level,” she says. The blunt words helped her realize that she had the power to lower her risk of developing the diabetes-related complications that her family members had experienced. But that meant once again making a commitment to a healthier lifestyle.
To achieve her mental, emotional, and physical transformation, Merkerson had to kick a lifetime of habits. “It’s tough to change how you’ve been living for more than 50 years,” she says. “Once my family started talking about diabetes and issues like what we all eat and our A1C, I began to realize I didn’t have to deprive myself. But I did have to understand how that piece of cake I wanted—and might eat—was going to affect me.”
That doesn’t mean completely neglecting her sweet tooth. But if she opts to have a small dessert, it doesn’t follow a heavy pasta dinner or a burger. “I changed my eating habits to have a salad with lean protein and vegetables and—on a day I’ve been physically active—to then treat myself to that small dessert,” says Merkerson, who’s quick to accept her limitations. She admits she hasn’t perfected living healthfully and has moments on vacation or out with friends when she’s tempted by food.
“But along with my 40-pound weight loss helping me get my A1C down to 6.2 percent—which is something I’m proud of because it’s the first time it’s been that in 15 years—I lowered my blood pressure and no longer have sleep apnea,” she says. “So no matter what, I try to always be respectful of my body and the fact that I’m 65 and living with diabetes.”
These days, Merkerson is determined to get people talking about diabetes—the symptoms as well as the lifestyle habits that can help prevent or manage the disease. One of five children, she shares her diabetes successes and setbacks with her extended family, particularly her brother, Zephyr, who also has type 2. The pair frequently compare A1C levels and share healthy-eating strategies.
Merkerson hopes others follow her lead and start talking about the condition with those closest to them. “These days, it seems we all know someone with diabetes and we all need to be talking about it,” she says.
To spread the word, Merkerson partnered with the American Diabetes Association as a spokesperson for America's Diabetes Challenge, a joint education project with Merck & Co. aimed at helping people with type 2 manage the disease. “My goal is letting people with diabetes know ‘I’m one of you. I’m no different from you and sometimes I struggle, too,’ ” she says. “It means so much when someone tells me they’re a fan, and if I can make a difference in that person’s life, I’ve done a good job. I want people to know they can be just like me: By paying attention to their body, they can enjoy a healthy life with type 2 diabetes. And that’s something I’ll never stop talking about.”