Everything I Knew About Diabetes, I Learned From My Grandmother

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My name is Jan and I have Type 2 diabetes. Sounds like something you’d say in front of a 12-step group, huh?

Since I got the news on January 2, 1986, I’ve known I have diabetes. I just haven’t always known about diabetes. Perhaps it’s a good thing the other genes I inherited are good, or I’d be in deep trouble, because my control in the early years was nonexistent, and it isn’t always perfect now.

My doctor laughed at me when I first told him I had diabetes. But I knew. I’d been drinking the river dry and spending way too much time in the bathroom. I knew the signs because the owner of a college hangout I frequented back in the day had told me that’s how he knew he had diabetes.

After my fasting level came back at 311 mg/dl, Doc wasn’t laughing any more. He also wasn’t very helpful, simply handing me a piece of paper with a diet on it and the only diabetes education I would have for nine years: “Here. Follow this. Don’t eat any sugar.”

Not a problem. I knew all about diabetes, because my grandmother had diabetes. You just don’t eat any sugar. Granny would crush a saccharine tablet over her big bowl of cornflakes in the morning, she drank Tab, and her only dessert was a big hunk of angel food cake.

I followed the diet on the paper the doctor gave me for maybe two weeks. It seemed to be missing a few things. Like matzoh. What was I supposed to eat during Passover? I called the New York office of the American Diabetes Association to ask. They referred me back to the office in my state. My state is known more for inventing Wonder Bread than for having a large Jewish population. In other words, they were no help at all.

Still not a problem. Granny survived and I would, too. I just wouldn’t eat any sugar. (Except, of course, for angel food cake.) Besides, I had Type 2 diabetes. That wasn’t the real diabetes. Real diabetes was when you had to take shots.

But I progressed to pills. Then to insulin. And I learned what an endocrinologist was and made an appointment. (After, of course, my friend who told me about endocrinologists promised they wouldn’t give me one of those dreaded pieces of paper with a diet on it. Can you guess that coming to terms with food is my biggest problem?)

It had been nine years since I was diagnosed. My last HbA1c result had been 17.4 percent.

It was on my first visit to the endocrinologist—and the dietitian and the diabetes educator—that I began to learn. Things had changed since Granny’s days. The lightbulb came on over my head when Amy, my first dietitian, said, “All carbohydrates convert to sugar.” And, as promised, she did not give me a paper with a diet written on it. She asked me when I normally ate, what I ate, what my favorite foods were. She actually worked out a meal plan with me. One where I could eat anything as long as the carbohydrate count was right. Bread or matzoh. Angel food cake or pumpkin cake. It didn’t matter. What a concept!

And then there was Sonja, the diabetes educator. She was a retired Air Force major who’d worked with Corp. Klinger wanna-bes in Vietnam. (Remember Corp. Klinger from MASH? The soldier who was always trying to get a psychiatric discharge?) This was a woman who took no guff! Just the kind I needed. She let me know in no uncertain terms that, no matter what your regimen is—diet, orals, or insulin—Type 2 is “real” diabetes. The foods you eat, the medicines and/or insulin you take, and the exercise you get are only tools to help keep the “diabeastie” under control. (I must tell you more about Sonja sometime.)

Finally, I was being seen by people who knew about diabetes. Finally, I was learning. I cried with happiness all the way home. I couldn’t wait to go back for my follow-up two weeks later.

I’m still learning. I’m still questioning. I’m still exploring. I don’t like having diabetes, but I’m glad I know a lot more about how to deal with it.

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