Inspiring Stories

Using laughter as medicine

You would never guess that Trevor Davids, a business consultant, film and TV producer and biker filled with the joys of life, has Type 2 diabetes. That’s because he’s managed to take diabetes in his stride.

When did you find out you were diabetic?

Six years ago, in November 2010. I had all the usual symptoms – constantly thirsty, needing to urinate a lot – and I looked them up on the internet. Up came: diabetes. I read up on the condition before going to the doctor, and then announced, “I have diabetes.” We took the necessary tests and my blood sugar was really high (18mmol/l), so I was put onto insulin tablets immediately. Diabetes doesn’t run in my family, I’m not overweight and I do a lot of exercise, so I’m not a typical Type 2 case. I do have high blood pressure that runs in the family. When I was diagnosed with diabetes I had already given up alcohol ten years before, but I was smoking 40 cigarettes a day, so I had to give that up too. After 31 years of smoking, I quit on the first try. Once I make up my mind about something, there’s not much that can move me.

How has diabetes changed your daily life?

I’m a lot more conscious of my eating patterns now. I never used to eat breakfast – I’d grab something on the run, snack in the afternoon, and then eat a big plate of food in the evening. I had to learn to be less flexible about food. Eat a regimented breakfast, lunch and dinner, look at my intakes and learn about low GI. I couldn’t have done it without my family – my wife Norma and son Danté have been the most amazing support.

How do you manage to focus on the lighter side of living with a chronic condition?

I never focussed on the darker side of diabetes! I’m a very positive person, I like being focussed on doing something well. In challenging times, I just take it in my stride and deal with life’s knocks as they come.

Is there anything diabetes has stopped you from doing?

No. Only smoking! I’ve actually been able to take on more daily life challenges since being diagnosed, because I restructured and reorganised my life, so I now have more time.

What advice would you offer to other diabetics?

If you’ve just been diagnosed, don’t worry – it’s not as daunting as you think. It can become a lifestyle condition, you just need to adapt your lifestyle. Diabetes is part of who you are now, and denying it doesn’t make it go away.

What makes your life sweet?

Life itself! And my family, of course. And laughter: the ability to laugh and create a laugh. I believe that people can live a long time if they can learn to laugh in the face of adversity. I like to use laughter as part of my medication.

Making diabetes delicious

It might seem as though being a restaurant chef would be too tempting a job for a Type 1 diabetic, but 30-year-old Vanessa Marx has made an art out of making healthy food delicious – and accessible.

When did you find out you were diabetic?

I was about sixteen and in high school – seriously bad timing! I had all the usual symptoms. I was drinking about four litres of water a day and falling asleep during class because I was so exhausted. My mom eventually suspected diabetes and I had to be hospitalised. It was a traumatic experience. I’ve always loved food, and I remember lying in my hospital bed naming all the foods I could never eat again… It was a long list!

How has diabetes changed your daily life?

That’s a hard question, because it’s so much a part of my daily life. It can be difficult, sometimes, explaining to people who don’t have diabetes how you’re feeling. If I wake up with low blood sugar, for example, I’m exhausted before the day begins. People understand a throat infection, but they often don’t understand what waking up low feels like. As a head chef, I need to be alert every day, taking charge of the kitchen. There’s no room in a busy kitchen for feeling tired or unwell because of high blood sugar or needing time out to have something sweet because of low blood sugar.

Isn’t it difficult to be around food all day? How do you resist sweet treats?

It is quite tricky! Often just the act of making sweet treats for someone else satisfies the urge for me but other times I’m pretty tempted: what puts me off is that I know how I’ll feel later. I do believe in “everything in moderation”, so I allow myself a treat now and then. As long as it’s a once-off, and I’m not doing it every five minutes!

What advice would you offer to other diabetics?

Be disciplined! Pay attention to your diet: what you eat plays a huge role in how you feel. Also don’t feel like you’re on your own, don’t be afraid to ask for help – talk about your diabetes, and explain to those around you what it feels like. There’s still a stigma around diabetes, that it’s only people with weight problems who are diabetic. But the only way we’re going to change that is by talking about it.

What makes your life sweet?

My family and friends, and my work.

Get in touch with Vanessa: @vanessajaynem on Twitter and Instagram

A happy life with diabetes

If you met Shiara Pillay, a happy, healthy and confident 21-year-old who loves Art and is studying International Relations and Diplomacy, you wouldn’t guess that she had a chronic condition. But Shiara is a Type 1 diabetic. She just doesn’t let it get her down.

When did you find out you were diabetic?

When I was in Grade 4 and just about to turn 10. It wasn’t too horrible a diagnosis in comparison to some – my parents noticed that I was losing an extreme amount of weight, I was very dehydrated and waking up in the night to pee – all the classic symptoms.

Then one morning I threw up and they took me to the doctor. I was in hospital for a week and since then I’ve figured out how to live as normal a life as possible with diabetes. The hardest thing to get used to was not being able to eat sweets!

How has diabetes changed your daily life?

I think I’m obviously way more healthy than I would have been because I have to watch what I eat. I have a great diabetes team, and they’ve helped me to adjust my medication and my meals whenever I need to. I like the idea of being able to eat everything in moderation.

How does it help to have a community of fellow diabetics?

It helps to know that there are others in the same situation, it reminds you that you’re not alone. Youth With Diabetes really helped me to meet other people who have to think about the same things every day. I also think diabetes education is so important – new diabetics especially need to know what helps and what doesn’t, what you can eat, how you should exercise, how you feel when you’re low or high. It’s nice for me to share my experiences too. I do have bad days, it’s annoying to have to inject every day, but it’s just something you have to make the best of.

What advice would you offer to other diabetics?

Just do it – you can’t get out of it. If you look after yourself, it’ll be better for you in the long run, it’s for your benefit. And it makes you healthier too!

What makes your life sweet?

Just being happy – when things are going well and the sun is shining!

Get in touch with Shiara: shiaraismyname@gmail.com or join the YWD Facebook page: www.facebook.com/YouthWithDiabetes

 

Extreme sport and diabetes

Richard English has Type 1 diabetes – but that hasn’t stopped him from embarking on all kinds of adventures, including a seven day, 1000km cycle across England and Scotland. We ask him for his secrets to a healthy life with diabetes.

When did you find out you were diabetic?

Eight years ago, when I was 25. I had been feeling incredibly under the weather and stressed, but I blamed work and too much partying – I just thought I was run down. Then I started getting all the symptoms: extreme thirst, dramatic weight loss, drinking 2 litres of water a night and needing to pee every hour.

How has diabetes changed your daily life?

Obviously I have to inject insulin before I eat anything, and I test my blood sugar more or less before every meal. Exercise is also more of a need than a want – I always used to exercise, but now I can see the effect on my blood sugar results, immediately. That’s very motivating.

I went cold turkey on a lot of things when I was diagnosed, and I haven’t kept any bad habits. I’m 20kg lighter than I used to be, and I don’t over-indulge any more. I suppose, in my case, diabetes could be seen as a positive thing. I wasn’t living a healthy life before I was diagnosed, and I have a better quality of life now.

I don’t think I could have adapted so well to life with diabetes if it weren’t for my wife, Casey. She never left my side, and all the dietary changes I adopted she did too. She also helped a lot in the early stages, when there was just too much information for me to absorb. She got behind the science of it and now knows more about low GI and its effect on blood sugar than I do!

Have you always been a cyclist?

I got my first bike when I was 5 years old, and I’ve almost always had a bike. Cycling is a big part of my life, and I really love it. I stopped exercising for about 6 months after my diagnosis, because I was uncertain about what it would do to my blood sugar, and every so often I have to cut a ride short because I’m going low. But most of the time diabetes doesn’t get in the way of my cycling at all.

Can you tell us about the Ubunye Challenge?

The Ubunye Challenge is a triathlon event organised by an old Rhodes friend of mine, Cameron Bellamy in 2012. He decided to raise funds for the Angus Gillis Foundation by doing an extreme cycle, swim and rowing challenge. I joined him for the cycle – I rode for seven consecutive days and covered 1000km through howling gales, rain, sleet and snow. It was in April, which was supposed to be spring, but it was shockingly cold. By the third day, we outran the weather and I saw my shadow for the first time. That was a good moment! 1000km seems like an unbelievable distance, but if you do it in 120km chunks it’s not that bad.

What advice would you offer to other diabetics?

To me, the most important thing is that you have to stay positive and optimistic, because diabetes is not going to go away. As soon as you can smile at it and look it in the eye, you’re on your way to living a happy life with diabetes. The sooner you can get positive about it, the better.

What makes your life sweet?

My wife Casey, my wonderful son Robbie, weekends with friends, good food, my bike, and exploring my new home city of London.

Get in touch with Richard: molorich@gmail.com

The challenge of gestational diabetes

Celeste Smith is no stranger to gestational diabetes: she’s had it twice, including during her pregnancy with now-five-year-old twins Connor and Adam. We find out what she wishes she’d known before she fell pregnant.

Is there a reason you’re so happy to share this very personal story?

I want to educate, encourage and motivate women with gestational diabetes, and prevent other women from having to go through what I and many others had to endure.

How did you find out you had gestational diabetes?

My first pregnancy was stillborn: Noah was born at 38 weeks. I didn’t know I had gestational diabetes until after Noah was born. We suspected with my family having diabetes that I could get it, but my doctor at the time never picked it up. When I wanted to fall pregnant again, my new doctor Dr Jansen immediately tested for glucose tolerance before I fell pregnant, and then again after I fell pregnant. That’s how we found out I had gestational diabetes again.

What were your symptoms?

What’s tricky about gestational diabetes is that it goes from nothing to full-blown diabetes very quickly. It’s only when you’re pregnant, so there’s no warning beforehand. The symptoms I had were swollen hands and feet, bad circulation, pins and needles in the hands, and constant thirst – I was drinking a lot of water.

Does diabetes run in the family?

Yes – my late mother had Type 2 diabetes, and three of my sisters and my brother have diabetes (half of my eight siblings, in fact!) None of my family recognised my symptoms, but none of us were looking for them: you put your faith in the doctor, that’s what doctors are there for.

What did you do to manage your gestational diabetes?

During my pregnancy with the twins, I was put on Metformin and later insulin. I also had to have monthly HbA1c tests and test my blood sugar seven times a day: when I woke up, before each meal, after each meal and before I went to bed. My fingers had so many holes in them; I didn’t know where to prick myself! I went to a dietician, which was helpful, we discussed good eating habits and made a lot of changes – we started eating more steamed foods and not so much starch (like potatoes, bread and pasta). And I started exercising. My diabetes doctor, Dr Dave, told me I had to exercise every day, even when I was tired after working all day.

What advice would you offer to women with gestational diabetes?

Listen to your doctors, stick to your eating plan and exercise a little bit every day. Stay focused: this is for the health of your babies. It helps that you just have to stay focused for nine months, and then the reward at the end is breathtaking. My boys were big for twins (2.8kg/each at 35 weeks) and healthy. I’ll never forget how relieved I was to hear both babies crying in the delivery room. They were both crying at the same time, and the doctor said: “Wow, they sound like a choir!”

What makes your life sweet?

I could say sunsets and sunrises, I could say my religion or even cupcakes and chocolates. But my husband and three boys are the light of my life, and sharing everything with them makes my life so sweet.

Finding flavour in diabetes-friendly food

We chat to Ishay Govender, acclaimed foodie writer, about her love of cooking and how to make Indian food just as tasty – but a little healthier.

You have a family history of diabetes – have you been tested yourself?

I get my blood sugar and cholesterol tested once a year – every year. Because I’m aware that Type 2 diabetes is often a hereditary condition, I’m very conscious of my health and how food contributes to my wellbeing. In traditional homes there’s an emphasis on food and family as a way of expressing love, and I know I’ve inherited that from my mother and grandmother – sharing food with people is my way of expressing that love.

Have you made any changes to your diet because you know Type 2 diabetes runs in the family?

I’ve learnt to alter things slightly so that they’re healthier but still have lots of flavour. When we first found out that my mom was diabetic I did a lot of research, and made sure she went to a dietician and found out specifics of how to change her cooking style. That said, we grew up in a very healthy household so the changes weren’t too difficult.

What advice would you offer to people who are struggling to eat a healthy diet?

I think the most important thing is to accept and make peace with the fact that you have diabetes – it doesn’t make sense to fight it. Also, food should never be about restriction, it’s about enjoyment. Change the spotlight from focusing on what you can’t have to what you can enjoy. It’s a great time to explore flavours, textures and a sense of fun in the kitchen.

Have you learnt any ‘tricks’ to make traditional Indian food a little healthier?

A few! Here are the main ones:

  • Cook with less oil – it is possible, especially if you use olive oil cooking spray.
  • Don’t eat double starch (i.e. rice and potato curry, or curry and roti)
  • Cook vegetables for a shorter period of time so that they keep some of their goodness – things like okra and butternut don’t have to be cooked to mush.
  • Rethink vegetables – they don’t only have to be pickled or curried, they can be fresh with interesting dressings. I try to include half a salad in a meal, with a yoghurt dressing (plain low fat yoghurt with toasted cumin seeds, mint and lemon zest – delicious!)
  • I only use baby potatoes with their skins on – they’re low GI and the skin has fibre.
  • Brown rice is so much healthier than white rice – it’s full of fibre and has a lovely nutty flavour. You also need less rice because it fills you up more.
  • Spices and herbs are a diabetic’s best friends! They add such flavour and zest, and you can experiment with different combinations to make a dish more interesting.

What makes your life sweet?
The pleasure of enjoying food and food travel with my husband. Cotton pyjamas and fresh linen. The knowledge that even someone with a ‘soft’ voice like mine, can make a difference using it.

Get in touch with Ishay: @IshayGovender on Twitter / Instagram / Vin

Agents for Change

We chat to Buyelwa Majikela-Dlangamandla, a diabetes educator who trains local healthcare workers in a programme called Agents for Change, about diabetes in the workplace.

Can you tell us about Agents for Change?

Agents for Change is a diabetes training outreach programme, supported by the World Diabetes Foundation, that aims to improve diabetes care in rural and semi-urban areas of South Africa. The goal is to empower healthcare providers and people living with diabetes to manage their diabetes to prevent diabetes-related complications.

The first part is two days of intensive and interactive training that provides participants with a sound knowledge of diabetes. Practical skills in preventing and managing lifestyle conditions are demonstrated, like how to prepare affordable healthy food. Participants set their own goals of what they wish to change in their lifestyle habits and workplace.

Six months later, the same participants come back for the second phase where they share their experiences, successes and challenges in carrying out their planned changes. We focus on behaviour counselling and the stages of change. People with diabetes are invited and they volunteer to share their real life experiences to be discussed as case studies for learning. Agents for Change has trained more than 1,500 healthcare workers and reached thousands of South Africans since 2008.

How are you involved?

I run the workshops with Noy Pullen, the project manager.

How did you become interested in diabetes?

My father had diabetes and so did all of his siblings, so there’s a family connection. I have also been working as a diabetes educator since 1995 at Groote Schuur Hospital and am currently working as a clinical educator at the University of Cape Town.

What is the most important message you share in your training?

Three things:

  1. Choosing a healthy lifestyle can prevent and/or delay the onset of diabetes.
  2. People living with diabetes can enjoy a healthy, normal life.
  3. A positive attitude leads to a meaningful life.

What is the most surprising lesson for the participants?

That the effect of physical activity on blood sugar levels is similar to that of blood glucose lowering medicines and insulin.

Once they have finished their training, what happens?

They are encouraged to start support groups and vegetable gardens. Those groups are called “Khula Groups”. They get continued support from the project – reading material and gifts – and they are always linked to the project manager on SMS or email.

How many people has Agents for Change helped?

Agents for Change has trained more than 1,500 healthcare workers and through them reached thousands of South Africans since 2008.

What advice would you offer to people living with diabetes who are struggling?

I can never fully understand how diabetes affects people who live with it, so it wouldn’t be right for me to offer advice. Because diabetes affects people differently, the approach should be personalised. However, I do notice that those who have accepted diabetes as part of their lives and taken charge of their own health find it easier.

What makes your life sweet?

Living in the moment, love and smiles from people around me.

Get in touch with Buyelwa: buyelwa.majikela-dlangamandla@uct.ac.za or find out more about Agents for Change at www.worlddiabetesfoundation.org: Projects.

Howza’s life with diabetes

Musician, actor and Type 1 diabetic – we find out how Howza fits it all in.

How long have you been diabetic?

Since 2003: I was 21 at the time. I was actually introduced to diabetes from a very young age because my father had Type 2 diabetes, but I was very ignorant – I didn’t know what it was until I got it. But I think the younger you are, the easier it is to adapt your life.

What was your diagnosis like?

You know, all the symptoms kicked in – loss of weight in a very short space of time, dehydration, constantly going to the toilet. I didn’t understand what was going on. When you lose weight like that you instantly associate it with HIV/AIDS, because there’s so much awareness of that. So obviously I panicked… But I did the responsible thing and went to the doctor – that’s when I found out I was diabetic. I wasn’t exactly relieved, the doctors put the fear of God in me by telling me all the things that could happen to me. It was hard to come to terms with…. But I was scared, and I was willing to turn my life around for the sake of living longer.

What’s the biggest challenge of living with diabetes?

Obviously diet and exercising. I was saying to my wife the other day, as much as I enjoy going to gym, it’s never easy. You need to find a way to motivate yourself to go to gym 3 or 4 times a week – self-motivation is important to live a healthy life. Nobody likes gym, in all honesty! But at the end of the day, when you put your mind to it, you’ll end up enjoying it.

I used to live a very unhealthy lifestyle – eating fast food and drinking every day. That had to change. I’m not saying be a health nut, but you need to find a way to do things moderately. If you’re going to drink, you need to drink responsibly and be aware of your sugar levels. I decided, instead, to stop drinking. But it was difficult for my friends to understand – you’re not drinking, so all of a sudden you’ve become a priest! It wasn’t easy, trust me, that was the most difficult part, especially as a youth. But at the end of the day I became selfish and told myself, “It’s not about them, it’s about me.” If I don’t take care of myself, they’ll still be cool – I won’t.

What advice would you offer to other diabetics?

I always say to people – look, I’m living with it, it’s not the end of the world. As cliché as that might sound, that’s the actual truth. I’m living a healthy, normal life with diabetes. Like I said, I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal and act like I’m perfect. I have my challenges. So when I speak to the youth I try to be as open and truthful as I can, so that they can relate. At the end of the day, the bottom line is that you have to be responsible for your own life.

What makes your life sweet?

My daughter, Tumelo.

Get in touch with Howza: @Howza_SA on Twitter