"We were still living in Illinois, getting ready to move to Arizona," Dion said. "I found out on my birthday in October 2005. My doctor in Illinois set me up with medication and taught me how to do a finger stick (to check blood sugar levels). After we got down here, I was able to find a doctor who sent me to a nutritionist. That has helped a great deal, she helped me understand what food to eat and how to prepare it."
According to the American Diabetes Association, Helen is one of over 17 million people diagnosed with the dreaded disease. Pinal County Public Health estimates that close to eight percent of the county's population has diabetes.
Although she has diabetes, Helen is not the type to let it slow her down. But she knows the disease has changed her life.
"I retired 17 years ago," Dion said. "I was a lot more active when I was working. After I retired, I slowed down quite a bit. I wasn't exercising and while I wasn't realizing it, I was really enjoying my desserts. The pounds just started to creep up on me. You don't know how bad some foods can be for you."
Along with fellow diabetic and close friend Carol Burd, Dion exercises regularly and is an active participant in one of the Pinal County Public Health Diabetes Support Groups.
The Diabetes Education and Prevention Program offers monthly support groups for diabetics throughout Pinal County. Support groups are held in Casa Grande, Eloy, Maricopa, Mammoth, Apache Junction and Florence.
"We started them in October 2008," said Mary Gonzales, Coordinator for the Diabetes Prevention and Education program. "Helping people manage their condition is my passion. The groups are not only educating about diabetes, but it's that support system for people affected by diabetes."
A typical meeting consists of an hour of education on a particular subject and a discussion of food choices. Participants also get a healthy snack during the meetings. But the reward for Gonzales comes in the camaraderie that occurs between fellow diabetics.
"We've been doing this for almost three years and people have built very good relationships," Gonzales said. "They share and talk openly about their experiences. They refer people to physicians and specialists. That support system helps people to live a healthy lifestyle, despite being diagnosed with diabetes."
"You learn so much," Dion says. "You receive a lot of information that is really helpful to know. Mary is very good at answering questions. We hear what other people are going through and how they are trying to cope with it. You feel free to add something that has worked for you. Mary always brings recipes and healthy snacks."
In addition to Gonzales' role as a coordinator for diabetes prevention and control, she also chairs the Pinal County Diabetes Coalition. The coalition is a group of nutrition and health professionals from Pinal County, Sun Life Family Health Center, Casa Grande Regional Medical Center, Central Arizona College-Dietetic Education Program, Cenpatico Behavioral Health Agency and Abbott Laboratories.
The Pinal County Diabetes Coalition hosts an annual health fair each year, in addition to publishing a quarterly newsletter targeted toward physicians who have diabetic patients. The outreach is intended to help control the disease as well as the cost of the disease. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the average cost for diabetes-related hospitalizations is $27,000.
"I've been teaching nutrition for 25 years and I've noticed that we are trending more and more away from home-cooked meals where we had more control over what goes into our foods," Gonzales said. "We love the dollar menus. We love the fast food restaurants and they are very convenient. But we are consuming a lot of extra calories and a lot of fat."
In addition to changing her lifestyle due to diabetes, Dion has also changed her perspective when it comes to life.
"I used to be a lot more judgmental, especially of the people who parked in the handicapped spots," Dion said. "But then I found out that they could have something that doesn't show. You look at some people and say to yourself 'if only they know what they are doing to themselves.' I see children and they are starting to get obese at an early age. I hope the schools are starting to give them better exercise during recess."
Diet, exercise and proper management of diabetes is the secret to a long life with minimal complications, Gonzales says. The Pinal County Public Health programs are designed to educate, inform and help people lead a healthy lifestyle while minimizing complications from diabetes.
For more information on the Diabetes Support Groups, can call Mary Gonzales at 520-866-7687 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Symptoms of Diabetes
According to the National Diabetes Association, many diabetics may not know that they have the disease since many of the symptoms appear on the surface to be harmless.
Type 1 diabetics may experience frequent urination, unusual thirst, extreme weight loss, irritability and fatigue along with extreme hunger.
Type 2 diabetics may show the same symptoms as Type 1 diabetics. Other symptoms may include: blurred vision, cuts or bruises that are slow to heal, tingling or numbness in hands and feet and reoccurring infections.
"Unfortunately, the rates continue to grow right along with the obesity issue," Gonzales said. "Both of them go hand-in-hand. We now tend to think of obesity as a determining factor for diabetes."
Gonzales said that attacking the obesity rate will help to make a difference in the diabetes rate. But people who are not obese can still have diabetes.
"Most commonly those are people with Type 1 diabetes," Gonzales says. "But most Type 2 diabetics do tend to be overweight. Not obese, but overweight."
Complications from Unmanaged Diabetes
Left unmanaged, diabetes can have an array of complications.
Looking at a model of the human body on her desk, Gonzales points out many of the complications a person can expect if they do not take medications or even take care of their bodies.
"Almost every part of our body unfortunately is affected," Gonzales points out. "The number one killer for diabetics is heart disease. We need to watch our blood sugar levels and our carbohydrate intake. We also need to pay attention to the type of fats we eat. We need to eat more of the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Things like olive oil, avocados and the healthy type of nuts. Stay away from lard and shortening, those things with high-saturated fat, animal products."
She also urges everyone to switch from whole or 2 percent milk to skim or 1 percent milk. Believe it or not, milk contains saturated fats.
Pointing to the model, Gonzales highlights the head.
"Strokes are very common among diabetics along with eye disease," she says. "These things can be caught early if people are going in and having their preventive appointments with their doctor. We need to have really well-managed care. You need to have the routine tests done."
Gonzales adds that the American Diabetes Association publishes standards of care for physicians showing them what sort of tests should be conducted throughout the year.
Pointing to the kidneys, Gonzales said that watching blood pressure can help slow or even stop kidney failure in diabetics.
"We hear a lot about blood sugar control in diabetics," she said, "but we are hearing a lot more about blood pressure being just as important. We need to maintain a normal blood pressure which is usually below 130 over 80. If it starts to creep up, you need to do something about that."
Watching you sodium intake can help control blood pressure. Healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables in one's diet can counter some of the negative effects of sodium.
In addition to the pancreas being affected, Gonzales said nerve damage in the feet will be an indication of neuropathy.
"The first place we usually catch neuropathy is in the feet," she said. "Foot care is very important. In fact, I am going over this topic in our next support group meeting. Catching symptoms such as numbness and circulation issues can help ward off a possibility of amputation in the future."
Gonzales points out that having a good primary care physician, taking prescribed medication along with a good diet is a way to help combat the complications of diabetes.