When NBA Hall of Fame basketball player Dominique Wilkins retired from the NBA in 1999, he began feeling sluggish and tired all the time. The former Atlanta Hawks Superstar, who was once known as the Human Highlight film and was a two-time NBA slam dunk champion, also picked up weight as fast as Santa picks up toys.

Going to the doctor for a regular physical and about 50 pounds overweight and feeling sluggish, Wilkins found out that he was a type 2 diabetic.

“The doctor told me he had good news and bad news,” Wilkins, 52, told a small gathering of patients, Dec. 20, at the office of Dr. Richard Ashby at 1647 Benning Road in Northeast, D.C. “The bad news was I wasn’t going to die. The good news was I had diabetes and I had to change my diet to live. I thought that feeling tired and sluggish all the time was because I was getting older. My legs ached. I couldn’t jump like I used to. I felt like an old man; not an all-star caliber athlete.”

Wilkins, who showed the first signs of the disease during his playing days when he would break into cold sweats and his hands would begin to shake following games, said he did what most male patients in the African-American community did when they receive bad news from a doctor. They ignored the advice. “When the signs first started, my brother (Gerald) asked me about it and I just told him it was a result of my coming down (emotionally) after an exciting game. He told me it wasn’t normal and I needed to get it checked out.”

It took some time, but when he finished playing, Wilkins took his brother’s advice.

He quickly found out that diabetes was a chronic disease marked by high levels of sugar in the blood. He also remembered that his father and grandfather died of diabetes and his mother lives with it, making him a prime candidate for the illness.

“I got mad at my doctor,” said Wilkins, who spent 12 of his 15 NBA seasons with the Atlanta Hawks in a career where he scored 26,668 points. “I felt like a lot of black men do and that’s the doctor is my enemy when the doctor really is my best friend.”

Dr. Ashby, who is committed to community health and currently offers treatment for diabetes, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, allergies and other illnesses for uninsured patients for a $40 fee on Fridays, says he is doing what he can to stop the growing tide of diabetes and other life threatening diseases in the African-American community that are the result of poor health choices.

Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, foot and leg amputations and blindness. Yet, 27 percent of people with the disease don’t even know they have it. And 93 percent of people with pre-diabetes are undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 79 million people in the United States, including the District, have pre-diabetes, in which blood sugar levels are high but not high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. African Americans are twice as likely to get diabetes as non-whites. Many of the problems stem from the bad food we eat and a lack of exercise which is leads to obesity.

“Few people know they have pre-diabetes, and yet they could prevent or postpone diabetes by making some basic lifestyle changes,” said Dr. Ashby. “This is an important message to the African-American community that we should be concerned about, yet we aren’t. Lives are being cut short when a good diet and exercise can improve longevity and the quality of life.”

One of the patients listening closely to Dr. Ashby and Wilkins was Tania Johnson of the District who weighed 400 pounds and lost 226 pounds over the past year thanks to surgery, exercise and a change in diet. She now carries a picture with her fitting her entire body into one leg of her old jeans. “If you work hard, you can do it,” Johnson said. “I still take my medication for diabetes, but not as much.”

In diabetes, the body does not make enough of the hormone insulin, or it doesn’t use it properly. Insulin helps glucose (sugar) get into cells, where it is used for energy. If there’s an insulin problem, sugar builds up in the blood, damaging nerves and blood vessels. There are two major forms: type 1 and type 2, which accounts for 90 percent to 95 percent of diabetes. Symptoms include thirst, hunger, tiredness, blurry vision, healing problems and frequent urination. In pre-diabetes, blood sugar isn’t high enough to cause typical symptoms, so at age 45, people are advised to be screened every three years, Dr. Ashby said. “But many people don’t get tested.

They don’t feel terribly bad, but they may not feel very good either.”

Wilkins, who lost 40 pounds through exercise and diet, says making modest lifestyle changes can reduce the risks and improve health dramatically. In his case, he said he cut out fast food and fried food –except on special occasions when he cheats and he filled his diet with vegetables and fruit. The Baltimore native also drinks at least one gallon of water each day and exercises for at least 30 minutes daily. “Just enough to build up a sweat,” Wilkins said. “That works for me. People have to find out what works for them. Making lifestyle changes are never easy, but they are necessary if you want to live


Bruce Branch

Special to the AFRO