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'If I'd listened to my doctor, I'd have two good legs today'

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Ken "Moe" Ponton doesn't need greeting cards or heart-shaped boxes of chocolates to remind him when Valentine's Day rolls around.

It's etched in his memory because last year, on a day traditionally reserved for romance, Ponton, 78, found himself on an operating table at Grace General Hospital as a vascular surgeon amputated his left leg below the knee.

The outgoing, quick-with-a-joke senior lost the limb to complications of Type 2 diabetes, the fastest growing chronic disease in Canada, and one the retired electronics salesman has struggled with for the past 20 years.

 

"Basically, the doctor told me if I didn't get my blood sugar down, this could happen if I got an infection," he said, playfully tapping his prosthetic limb as he shared coffee with visitors in the living room of his Westwood home.

"I didn't do what my doctor told me because I felt I knew better. I went back to my doctor later and apologized to him. If I'd listened to him, I'd have two good legs today."

When he was first diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes -- the most common form of the disease, affecting nine out of 10 Canadian diabetics -- Moe didn't get a lot of information about how to keep the complications at bay.

He didn't really give it much thought at the time. Why should he? He felt fine.

But diabetes sneaks up on its victims over time, numbing nerves, clogging the system and cutting circulation, especially in the legs and feet.

Diabetics are far more likely than non-diabetics to develop chronic, severe infections in their extremities.

The disease is the leading cause of amputations in Canada. In Manitoba, 77 per cent of all lower-limb amputations are due to diabetes. A diabetic in this province is 30 times more likely than a person without the disease to have a lower limb removed.

When Moe was first diagnosed, it was often foolishly said people suffering from Type 2 had "a touch of diabetes." He now knows just how heavy that "touch" can be.

For years, he relied on pills to control his blood sugar. When he graduated to daily insulin injections seven years ago, he thought his troubles were over because he was now on "the best medicine available."

"You think it (insulin) is a cure-all, but it's not," he said, displaying his year-old artificial limb for a photographer. "It's a stop-gap. The only cure for Type 2 is yourself, eating right and exercising."

Moe's story is compelling, and he shares it with blunt good humour. It started with a callus on the bottom of his left foot. "Most calluses just go away, but when you have diabetes and poor circulation, it doesn't go away," he explained.

Not long after the callus was removed, he made another grisly discovery -- the baby toe on his left foot had turned black. He was in the grip of an infection that caused him to suddenly black out and keel over.

His wife of 40 years, Noreen, called an ambulance, and Moe was rushed to hospital, where a doctor didn't mince words. "He said: 'Toe's gotta go Moe!'

"He took it off right there in emergency. He froze it and cut it off... He used a big pair of pliers that looked like something you'd use for shoeing a horse."

The doctor said there was a 50 per cent chance of saving his foot, but two weeks later, the surgeon removed the lower half of Moe's left leg.

"They had to take it because you can die from the infection," he noted.

Moe was angry with himself initially but refuses to dwell on the negative. Now he volunteers at Grace Hospital and tells his story to a monthly support group for amputees at the Rehabilitation Hospital at the Health Sciences Centre.

"I tell them it's a kick in the butt, but it's not the end of your life," he said, chuckling. "I walk so well they don't even know I've got a prosthetic. I drive all over, and I shovelled snow this winter.

"But I've convinced my wife I can't cut the grass."

One of the people he credits for his upbeat attitude is Vi Stoesz, a recreation co-ordinator at the Rehab Hospital who works exclusively with amputees.

Stoesz, stressing she was speaking for herself and not the hospital, said up to 70 per cent of the patients she sees are diabetic and far too many, despite having lost a limb to the disease, still make bad food choices and don't grasp the benefits of daily exercise.

"I see a huge disconnect between what people are eating and the fact they have diabetes," she said of the disease, largely blamed on rising obesity rates and sedentary lifestyles. "They are still choosing food that's not good for them."

Moe Ponton doesn't need any convincing. His message to other Type 2 diabetics is simple: "Listen to your doctor, keep your weight down, exercise and be as happy as you can."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 J5

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