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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The numbers don't lie; I'm in serious trouble

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In a tiny examination room in the bowels of St. Boniface General Hospital, my doctor is giving me the sort of look I give my dogs after they have an accident on our living room carpet.

For those of you without medical degrees, this is not a good sign.

 

I have been seeing Dr. Turnly Wong, a general internal medicine specialist, for several years now. He's compassionate and friendly but doesn't mince words.

After punching the results of my latest blood tests, my weight and my blood pressure into his Smartphone, he turns to me and frowns, the way I do when someone suggests I should eat broccoli.

"There's a 21.6 per cent chance of you having a heart attack or a stroke in the next 10 years if you don't do something about it," Dr. Wong tells me bluntly.

I'm not surprised to be getting bad news. It's just a little badder than I'd anticipated.

I have Type 2 diabetes, a disease in which my pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin or my chubby body can't effectively use the insulin it does make.

As my doctor delivers the bad news, I'm scribbling his words down in a reporter's notebook because this visit just happens to coincide with me starting two months of research for these stories on Type 2 diabetes.

Before we talk about heart attacks and strokes, we first review my latest statistics. My blood-glucose level, after fasting for 12 hours, is 11.5 millimoles per litre. You're generally considered to have diabetes if your fasting blood sugar is equal to or greater than 7.0 mmol/L.

My hemoglobin A1C is 9.1 per cent. Initially, I have no clue what this means, other than it's not good.

"This tells me in the last three months your blood sugar has not been well controlled," Dr. Wong explains. "This allows me to catch you cheating. You can't trick me by eating perfect food for a few days before your blood test.

"This one is 9.1 per cent. It's bad. Horrendous would be 12 to 13. Bad is eight to 10. There's no way to be diplomatic. It's the worst you've had in three years."

A normal blood-glucose test is like your statistics from a single game, whereas the A1C is your batting average for the season. It measures the amount of sugar that stuck to your red blood cells over the last three months.

"My first thought when I saw these numbers was you must be eating all the things you're not supposed to eat because how else would you get numbers like these?" Dr. Wong says. "We need to get you to take a little more ownership of these numbers."

And that's the bottom line when it comes to Type 2 diabetes -- taking ownership of the disease. I have not exactly taken ownership. For the most part, I've closed my eyes and pretended I don't have it.

As it turns out, this is not a medically sound approach. It's not that I haven't been good. It's just that I haven't been good very often. I'm good, then bad, then good again. It's like my blood-sugar level is on a roller coaster -- only it's not nearly as much fun. I'm the poster boy for Type 2 diabetes, a middle-aged guy whose main physical activity is changing TV channels via remote control.

But things are changing. In the last couple of months, as I've researched and written stories about Type 2 diabetes, I've learned a lot. I've gone from someone who knows nothing about what's going on inside his own body to someone who knows so much he can chatter away non-stop until the person he's speaking to dies of boredom.

I now know the terrible things diabetes can lead to. I know it's the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputations. It's also a leading cause of heart disease.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn diabetics are more likely to get hurt while running with scissors.

The main thing I've learned, however, is that Manitoba, like the rest of the world, is in the grips of a skyrocketing epidemic of Type 2 diabetes. By 2020, there will be at least 139,000 diabetics in Manitoba. Of those, 90 per cent will have Type 2.

Why so much diabetes? Well, like I said, it's largely triggered by bad eating habits and a lack of exercise. But it's also because of people like me. That's another thing I've learned -- I'm a big part of the problem.

An estimated one million Canadians have diabetes and don't even know it. But there are a lot more who have it and don't do what they need to do to prevent or delay the onset of serious complications.

It sounds easy: Eat and exercise in moderation. The truth is, judging by soaring obesity rates, that "simple" solution is a lot easier to say than do.

What's the big problem? It's partly a lack of education. Specialists say 70 per cent of those diagnosed with the disease never receive education.

When I was first diagnosed, my family doctor simply told me to lose a little weight. I ended up attending diabetes classes only years later after the surgeon who repaired my torn Achilles tendon referred me to Dr. Wong.

And I only ended up writing a series on diabetes after my friend and boss, Free Press deputy editor Julie Carl, decided it would be interesting to tag along with me to one of my classes at Winnipeg's Youville Diabetes Centre.

"You should really write about this," Julie told me at the time. It eventually dawned on me she was right.

I know that now. I also know the key to beating diabetes is getting people to take ownership of their disease.

So I'm hitting the treadmill and, slowly, my blood sugar is coming down. My diabetes stats are more like they were a year ago when I completed a 10-week health challenge that saw me hitting the gym three times a week.

Back in the exam room a month later, Dr. Wong points this improvement out to me, but cautions: "Diabetes isn't a 10-week health challenge, Doug. It's an all-your-life health challenge."

Who knows? He may even get me to eat broccoli.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 J3

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