At first, Jules Smith could only walk 15 minutes at a time.(JULES SMITH)
As the pastor of the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in Denver, I'm often called upon to visit parishioners and friends in the hospital. Our congregation is predominantly African American, a group that is at particularly high risk of type 2 diabetes. So when I go to the hospital, I'm sometimes visiting people who've lost their toes and even legs to diabetes, or who have other diabetes complications.
That kind of sight puts the fear of diabetes in me, because you see, I have it too. And that is one of the things that keeps me on track with controlling my condition.
I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1992, when I was 45 years old. I was carrying 205 pounds on my 5'5" frame before my diagnosis, and I didn't exercise as much as I could. At the time, I just wasn't interested in any type of exercise.
Then I started feeling fatigued all the time. Even when I woke up in the morning, I felt tired, and later on in the day would feel so bad it felt like a Mack truck had hit me. At first I thought it was simply because I was overworking myself. But then I became unusually hungry and thirsty and developed flu-like symptoms. My doctor figured out pretty quickly that I had diabetes. When he checked my blood sugar, it was 550 mg/dl, which is very high (a normal fasting blood sugar is between 90 and 130 mg/dl).
My mother and father had diabetes, and my older brother and younger sister have it, too. So I knew my family history put me at higher risk of developing the disease. I wasn't shocked about my diagnosis. I wasn't depressed. I really just took it in stride—quite literally, as it turned out.
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[ pagebreak ]"At first, I was out of breath in 15 minutes"
I've now had diabetes for 15 years. I don't take insulin, but I do take the oral diabetes drug metformin twice a day to lower my blood sugar, and I exercise—a lot. When it's warm, I walk seven miles a day on the hiking and bicycle trails around Parker, Colorado, where I live. During the winter, I hop on the treadmill or stationary bicycle. When I started, I could only walk 15 minutes at a time before I developed calf cramps and got out of breath. It really was a struggle initially, but I pushed through it. Like I said, I've seen a lot of church members become disabled from diabetes, and I don't want that for myself. Plus, being a pastor of a church with 2,700 parishioners, I have to stay as strong as possible so I can minister to others. And I have grandkids, one 8 and another who's 3 months old. I want to live to see them grow up, too.
My daily walks take about two hours. I don't have any of the complications that people often get from diabetes, like vision problems or nerve damage in the feet. My last hemoglobin A1C, which is a checkup of a person's long-term blood-sugar control, was 6.5%, which is good (the American Diabetes Association recommends aiming for a hemoglobin A1C of 7% or lower).
I eat mostly the same things I did before my diagnosis, though less of them. I don't eat as many sweets, but I did cut back on one of my favorite foods—bread. I used to eat three slices a day, but now I may just have one. One of the things I did after my diagnosis was take a nutrition class, where I learned about healthier eating.
Bringing the word to others
I'm not the kind of person who boasts or brags about my success, but a parishioner in my church—she runs our health ministry and works for an organization that promotes African American health in Denver—asked me to share my story with Health.com.
At the church, our health ministry is primarily concerned about diabetes and high blood pressure. We have offered nutrition classes, and we have an ongoing aerobic exercise program. The church has recently completed a gym with an indoor walking track, too.
I'm proud of the information that people receive at the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. We're one of 25 or so churches that collaborate with the Center for African American Health here in Denver to improve the health of our community. When people walk into the doors of our church, it's like one-stop shopping to improve their bodies and souls.
I'm still trying to get my brother and sister to do more to handle their diabetes, but with less success. They don't get exercise, and they still eat whatever they'd like. Even though our parents had diabetes, they didn't suffer any complications from it. My siblings haven't yet, either. Perhaps they don't grasp what the scope of diabetes really is, or perhaps they feel invincible. As a result, their diabetes is out of control. That's a concern for me, and I talk to them over and over about it. I pray for them all the time. In fact, I preach to them, too! But they haven't gotten the message yet.