Irma Flores tries to walk at least 3 miles a day.(VICTOR HA/IRMA FLORES)I was born in Mexico, and my family came to the United States when I was six months old. When I was a small girl, my mother would boast that it was wonderful to live in a country where there was so much food. For breakfast she'd serve me a plate of four eggs, and I'd eat them all.
When I was a teenager, I would dream about waking up thin, but I never did. I still ate as if I should make full use of this bounty of food surrounding me. I'm 5'4" tall and eventually my weight reached 250 pounds. Sugar and fat were my best friends. Every day I'd eat between 3,000 and 4,000 calories, with a daily liter of regular Coke and lots of junk food. I couldn't walk 10 steps without breaking a sweat.
I was too embarrassed to go to a gym
In 1998, I developed gestational diabetes for a second time. After giving birth, my doctor told me that I had at least an 80% chance of developing type 2 diabetes if I didn't lose weight and change my diet and exercise habits. My father died of complications of the disease, my mother has had it for 15 years, both of my brothers and my sister have it, and my grandmother had it. As a Hispanic American, I knew my ethnic heritage put me at higher risk of the disease.
What's more, I'm the director of medical staff services at a large hospital, so every day I see the results of people's unhealthy decisions. I knew what I needed to do. I just didn't do it.
I once went to a gym, but I was so embarrassed even walking into this room filled with lean, fit people that I didn't return. "Maybe tomorrow," I kept telling myself. "Maybe tomorrow."
Then one of those tomorrows became the day of my diagnosis: Oct. 23, 2003.
I'd been very thirsty and so hungry, and I was getting up over and over at night to use the bathroom. I was also dealing with a yeast infection that stubbornly refused to go away. My gynecologist considered these symptoms and suggested that we test my blood sugar.
It was 295 mg/dl—way too high. A normal level would be 180 mg/dl after eating a meal. And a test of my long-term blood sugar, the hemoglobin A1C, was 15%, about twice as high as it should be. Most healthy people have a hemoglobin A1C of 4.5% to 6% and people with diabetes should have a hemoglobin A1C of 7% or below, according to the American Diabetes Association.
I had type 2 diabetes.
Next Page: Her diabetes crusade [ pagebreak ]Fear of complications made me a diabetes crusader
Since then I've become a bit of a "diabetes crusader." For example, one day the checker at the grocery store, a heavy-set Hispanic woman, ran my items across the scanner and said, "I see you're dieting, too." I told her I wasn't dieting—these choices were just part of my daily life. I told her that our people are prone to developing diabetes, and we need to choose our foods with some care to avoid it.
Although I hadn't heeded all the warnings people gave me that would have helped me avoid diabetes, I still want to help others steer clear of the disease. As for me, I realized it wasn't too late, I could still take action to avoid the complications of diabetes. The diabetes diagnosis put the fear of God into me, as well as other fears.
I was afraid of losing a foot, or going blind, or dying early, or suffering other complications that would keep me from raising my two children. I remembered my father, who would scream in pain from the nerve damage in his feet, and I remembered him dying too young after his sixth heart attack.
After my diagnosis, my doctor referred me to the Whittier Institute for Diabetes, which is at the hospital where I work, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. I started taking metformin, a drug that lowers blood sugar, as well as medications for my blood pressure and cholesterol. I went through diabetes and nutritional education programs and learned, finally, how to have a healthy relationship with food.
Food is no longer a luxury to indulge in. It's fuel for my body. When I think of food, I think "What does my body need so it can do better today? I've had two servings of milk and one serving of fruit today, so I need my veggies."
And I started exercising. I use an elliptical trainer at home for 15 to 30 minutes three times a week. I bought some walking shoes and started wearing a pedometer on my waist so I could see how far I was walking each day. Now I make sure to cover about three miles daily.
The pounds fell away until I got down to 149. I've put a few back on, but I'm still lighter today than when I was 15 years old. Best of all, my A1C—that test that shows you your general blood sugar level over the past few months—is now 5.7%, which I think is awesome.
Helping my children avoid type 2 diabetes
I'm a diabetes crusader at home too, and I'm making some progress. For dessert, my 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter may get sugar-free Jell-O with a dollop of low-fat whipped cream on top. When I serve them juice, I water it down. We only have diet sodas in the house, and we all eat reasonable portions.
When I was diagnosed with diabetes, my son was obese too. With smart food choices and an active lifestyle, he has definitely trimmed down. We're still struggling to get my daughter to eat her veggies, which is a challenge. When I test my blood sugar, which I do at least four times a day, sometimes my kids will say "Ow, that looks like it hurts." I use these moments as a lesson to teach them the importance of avoiding the disease that has taken such a toll on our family.
Somebody once told me that diabetes was a "death sentence." But it doesn't have to be that way. I'm healthier than I was when I was a teenager. Diabetes doesn't have to be the end of the rope; it can be beginning of better health for us.