Thursday, July 24, 2008


Scary title, eh? Well, I was looking for something witty and wry but it just didn't work.

You see, when I went in for my medical scare back in April, I came out with a couple of pieces of news I didn't really want to hear.

The first was the easiest to take. It turns out I should have been on some sort of anti-seizure medication since I had brain surgery. Fair enough. The medicine on that front is constantly changing so a change like that is not unexpected. At this point, my brain's a fixer-upper, anyways, so I pop pills and the seizures stay at bay.

The other piece of news was that my blood sugars were high. Really high. I joke now that when they tested me, I had more sugar than blood. You get the picture.

It wasn't a complete surprise. If I had been a little bit more in tune with what my body was telling me, I could have seen the warning signs. I could have realized that the peaks and valleys of fatigue were not normal. I could have seen that my body just wasn't handling my horrible diet as well as I'd liked to believe.

But hindsight only ignores the facts of the present. If I am to get healthy, I need to worry about the present and the future. That's what I've started to do.

One of my doctors told me recently that 85-90 percent of patients who receive news similar to mine make little or no actual change to their lifestyle. Pretty depressing thought. It frustrates him because he keeps thinking of all the other patients who come to him, people with horrible conditions that cannot be treated or managed. These patients come to him looking for something, anything they can do to make things better and the doctor can't offer much more than to ease their suffering.

Then he sees a patient with diabetes. Now diabetes is a horrible illness. The more I read about it, the more it terrifies me. The difference with diabetes is that, with discipline and courage, the disease can be managed. Your life is really only limited by the amount of work you are willing to put into staying healthy. You learn to get a feel for what your body can and cannot take. You stay away from stupid things like candy and pop. You eat your veggies. Most important, you get off your butt and do something. You walk or swim or dance (don't worry, I've stayed away from the dancing) or whatever.

The 85-90 percent figure is a sobering reality. Fortunately, for me, I've never really gone with the crowds. I march to the beat of my own drummer, even if he is a little demented, only has one arm and can't keep a beat (what can I say? I got a good deal). So I came out of the hospital with a mission.

After a scare like the one I got, giving up the sweets was a whole lot easier to do than I would have imagined. Where I once acted like a kid in a candy store - literally - I now pass the junk by without a glace. I'm not going to say I don't have the odd craving or that I don't indulge in some junk once in a while, but candy and chocolate just don't factor into the equation.

I also started to move more. The building I recently moved into has a great rooftop pool and I like going up there and splashing back and forth for a half hour or more. Even better, I'm only a short walk away from the Belt Line trail so I do a lot of walking. I will admit this has been an uphill battle. I can find all kinds of good reasons why I don't need to get up off my butt right now. It's what I'm good at. I can spend hours looking up info on walking without actually putting my shoes on. More and more, though, I get moving and I wind up feeling much better for having done so.

Stopped the sweets - check. Exercise - check. Next was my diet. In a lot of ways, this part is even tougher than the exercise. I'm a single guy living in Toronto. Cooking for one sucks and every restaurant delivers. You do the math. Of course, I'm now just an elevator ride away from a 24 hour dominion and I work just a 10 minute walk away from the St. Lawrence market. So I played to my strengths and got obsessive compulsive about it. I loaded my fridge with veggies and, in a break from past practise, I actually started eating them. I'm a snacker and a grazer so I just make sure that what I snack and sample comes from the produce section and not from a factory. I make it a point of pride. I plan ahead. I do all the things I should have been doing all along but this time I make sure they stick. And they have. Right now, I have a routine that involves making lunch for work and most other meals at home. It takes time, sure, but I wind up feeling better for it. So does my wallet, for that matter.

Again, I am not claiming sainthood. I have my weaknesses and I have my treats. I just make sure they are treats and not a complete relapse.

So, if I'm doing all this, what keeps me honest? What keeps me from treating myself again and again until I'm back to my old ways? The answer is simple. I've started using a glucometer.

Using a glucometer was one of the hardest things for me to do. First, I hate needles. Second, I really hate needles. Third, I didn't like the idea of dragging the thing around wherever I go. Besides, what do I really need one for? I'm eating healthier and exercising. Isn't that enough? Well, no. I started using a glucometer on June 1. I put it off and put it off and really only started because my doctor said there wasn't much point in having appointments if they didn't have numbers to work with. So I decided to give them a good week of thrice a day testing just to get them off my back.

I bought a knock-off moleskine notebook and recorded the numbers in there. I figured if I didn't need to record numbers afterwards, I could always use the notebook to scribble scraps of verse in the local starbucks or something like that. The week ended, however, and I kept going. And going. In fact, there has only been one day since I started when I recorded less than three tests. Taking the glucometer along with me turned out to be a minor inconvenience, one that was easily outweighed by the benefit of knowing how my body is doing. Taking it even further, I've even put together a spreadsheet of the numbers so I can bring it to the doctors when I need to (more OCD related madness, to be sure, but it impresses the docs).

What have I found? I found that good eating makes for lower numbers. I found that evening snacking makes for higher morning numbers. More importantly, I found that exercise really does play a role in blood sugar numbers. This is kind of my weekend wake-up lesson. As I tend to treat myself on weekends, my numbers do trend higher. If I get off my butt and go for a swim or a long walk or something, I see a noticeable drop in my numbers. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to excuse the treats by exercising - it's not a one for one kind of equation. It's just that it puts the difference in its starkest contrast.

What I've also found is that, by testing my sugars regularly, I am less prone to treating myself. Even for a contrarian like myself, I find it's hard to argue with numbers. They don't lie near as often as we'd like to admit. It's about pride. I really hate to see high numbers now. It stays challenging because my definition of high numbers is also getting lower. I'm giving myself less room to play with and that's a good thing.

So, now that I'm about three months into this change, what do I see? I see weight loss and more even energy levels. I see blood sugars on a downward slope. I start to see a different me, one who doesn't feel quite so out of place among the joggers and the walkers and the lap swimmers. Sure, I'm still bigger than most, but I'm out there lumbering along and that's all that matters.

Concrete gains? The last time I had blood work done, my sugars were just above the optimal level for controlled diabetes. By now, they should be well into the optimal range. If I keep going like this, I should be off the medication within a year. The last time I met with the scary number doctor, he shook my hand.

So, why am I telling you all this? The answer is complicated. Sure, I've had no problem talking about my aneurysm, but that was different. That was just an unlucky roll of the die, something that happened to me which I've had to deal with. Diabetes is a different matter, altogether. It's the disease of the new, fat millennium, the byproduct of a culture that would rather sit and watch than stand and do. While I can tip my hat to heredity, the reality is that I didn't do myself any favours and probably caused most of the problem with poor lifestyle choices. For someone who prides himself on his intelligence, it was a pretty stupid thing to do.

As such, I'm not looking for sympathy. Everyone was great when my aneurysm happened and I am more than grateful for the thoughts and words and actions of pretty much everyone I've ever known. The sympathy I received then helped me in more ways than I can count.

This time, I'm more embarrassed than anything. There's a stigma attached to this disease that confronts me everyday. That's fine and as it should be. I hope the stigma will keep people away, scare them into living healthier before it's too late. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be happening. While I've come to accept the reality of this disease, it remains a sore spot. For me, the stigma has become one more reason why I'm going to beat it into submission.

Save your sympathy for those who need and deserve it. I've created this mess on my own and I'm going to work my way through it. I'm stubborn that way. I'm going to get myself off the meds and make sure I'm one of the 10-15 percent who do something positive. I'm going to make sure the doctor keeps shaking my hand.

So why am I here? Why am I offering up an embarrassing reality to the world? Spending time exercising has left me with a lot of time to think and ponder. The framework for this post was written in my mind while walking the Belt Line. I realize I'm probably not the only person out there receiving this sort of news, waking up to the ticking of a biological time bomb. I just want to let those people know that there is hope. You might not be able to dismantle the bomb, but you can at least slow or maybe stop the clock. It takes hard work and discipline, but it's better than the alternatives. Even better, for all the hassles and headaches, the frustration and the pain, you do wind up feeling much better. Even now, still basically at the beginning of the journey, I'm seeing changes I wouldn't have thought possible three months ago.

That's as close to an inspirational speech as I'm likely to get. It makes me uneasy getting up on a soapbox but someone has to say something. The numbers are just too scary to ignore. I'm a bit of a news junkie and it seems that a week doesn't go by without some report detailing the skyrocketing numbers of diabetics in our country. Do we really want to create a society where glucometers are as ubiquitous as cell phones? I could probably go on for hours like this but, thankfully, I won't. I do have to go for a swim, after all.

1 comment:

Brian Wayne said...

Great read. My friend errol gave himself diabetes while on a health kick. yup... protein shakes loaded with fresh fruit... four times a day. That and too many trips to the restaurants. As someone who roomed with us off and on for about three years, and with me being the family cook and all... I learned a lot and took an active role in helping him manage the beast. It's doable... you'll be amazed at what a bowl of plain oatmeal with half a teaspoon of ground cinnamon will do for your blood sugar... or cinnamon tea. Many days he didn't use his meds because of that. Also consider using Stevia instead of sugar to sweeten things. Don't be afraid of the stigma... all walks of people have diabetes of various sorts, due to all kinds of reasons, from hereditary or racial susceptibility, to a simple year's worth of diet mismanagement. If you're describing a lifetime of no-nos, you got off lucky. As a guy who still looks in the mirror and sees the chubby kid who got teased, I know weight management is a real bitch. But no mountain gets climbed in a straight line upwards. Take the valleys with the peaks all in stride and do what it sounds like you're on your way to doing... building habits. It's amazing how sweet certain things taste to me, to the point where I don't even enjoy them... my wife knows me as a guy with no sweet tooth... she's known me for 13 years. If she had known me in elementary and early highschool, she'd know what used to be true.

Anyway, all the best... chin up and all that. You're doing great.