For Ray Smith, it was an abrupt transition from a normal state of health —if a tad overweight—into a world in which thirst, hunger and even dimming eyesight can no longer be ignored.
Smith, 53, was far from his home in Prince George’s County when he got the first signs that his health was changing forever. He was coaching basketball at an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament in Nashville, Tenn. in 1993 when his health turned the corner into diabetes.
“Something strange started happening. I was very thirsty, urinating quite frequently; just ravenous, hungry all the time. And it was just strange because I never felt that way.”
He said, upon his return home, “I got checked out and they told me I had type II diabetes.”
And, just like that, Smith became part of the 26 million Americans with Type II diabetes, squarely in the middle of the 45- to 64-year-old age group that has seen a 118 percent increase in diabetes diagnoses in the last 30 years.
Normally, the body metabolizes sugar without much incident. Insulin regulates how the body uses carbohydrates and controls fat metabolism. But in diabetics, that mechanism is out of control and the body can go haywire.
Undiagnosed or unchecked, diabetes can lead to a litany of ailments including terminal heart disease or stroke, kidney failure, nerve damage, loss of eyesight, skin problems such as infections and sores, and dental problems.
Smith said he thought he had it under control but at some point, he said, “I kind of got off.” He said his eating habits were terrible and he wasn’t exercising. Soon his body weight soared from about 175 to 230 pounds.
But the most dramatic moments were yet to come. In 2005, he traveled to High Point, N.C. to see his aunt who had just turned 100. The last time Smith had seen her he was four years old. By now, Smith said, his diabetes was out of control and his aunt could tell.
“And as I greeted her, she observed my stature and looked in my eyes and asked… ‘Are you diabetic?’ And I was, like, ‘Wow! Yes.’” Two years later a permanent life change came. “I was sitting at my desk at my office. I worked at a law firm in D.C.; sitting at my desk, my left eye went completely blank.” Eventually he lost sight in both eyes.
“It was devastating to my family and myself,” said Smith, a founding member of the National Harbor Chapter for the National Federation of the Blind. He has slimmed down to 185 lbs. and works at keeping the disease in check.
It didn’t have to be this way, according to Howard University Hospital endocrinologist Dr . Gail Nunlee-Bland, part of the legion of physicians and health care researchers who every November—during American Diabetes Month—try to increase awareness of the disease, including its consequences, management and prevention.
It is prevalent in 12.6 percent of African Americans, but the statistical penetration is even larger in places like Washington, D.C.
Dr. Nunlee-Bland said that in D.C.’s wards seven and eight about 18 percent of African Americans have diabetes.
Sometimes you can do all the right things and still come down with diabetes. In 1997, Rita Ford-Farmer of Northwest Baltimore was pregnant with her second son when she was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, a form of the disease that affects pregnant women who have never had diabetes. After giving birth, Ford-Farmer’s blood sugar levels returned to normal, although doctors told her the disease might return. It did, five years later.
Ford-Farmer says she and her five sisters grew up eating healthy meals prepared by their mother and they were all pretty active, she says, but diabetes ran in the family. “I think it was something we couldn’t run away from if we wanted to,” she said.
Because it runs in the family, Smith says her sons, who are 20 and 21 years old and very active, are regularly screened.
She insists on solid eating habits, stressing no fast food. “Half your plate should be vegetables. And then the other half, you divide that in half where a quarter of it would be your starch and the other quarter would be meat… drinking water instead of juice and soda.” Also, health experts urge exercise, such as a brisk 30 minute daily walk.