Curly white hair and a beard surround a set of merry blue eyes that twinkle with mischief. With a slap of the knee and a hearty belly laugh, everyone is greeted with a smile and a
warm embrace. For a moment I am returned to early childhood. “Wow! You look like Santa!” I say as we shake hands. The bespectacled man grins, and with a wag of the head says, “That’s not the first time today, but no, my name is Michael”
While Michael has the same jovial personality as old St. Nick, he’s had significant challenges with his health. Michael is one of millions of Americans living with Type II diabetes. He’s had some struggles and a few scares, but he’s managing the disease with medications, diet, and a positive attitude.
Day to-day, Michael Whitehead is a 51 year-old accountant who gets a laugh when he sees people’s expression of disbelief about his last name. “They always say, ‘really? No way!’ and I tell them it’s the honest truth but I didn’t start out matching my name so well.” As he sits down he offers, “I gotta tell you straight up, I don’t have much time to exercise!”
While he may not exercise with any regularity, Michael is constantly on the go. He and his partner, Bill, own an accounting business that keeps them hard at work. Tax season is especially busy, requiring months of long hours and exhausting mental work. Arriving early in the morning, working up until noon before grabbing a quick lunch and continuing the work late into the evening takes its toll.
Usually dinner is eaten out before going home and collapsing into bed. “Who has time to cook?” Michael asks, “Free time comes later. We have deadlines to meet, papers to file, questions to answer, computers to update…the list goes on and on.” Michael’s health also seemed to take a backseat for many years. He admitted he’s not really surprised he’s diabetic.
Michael’s paternal aunt and uncle had diabetes and as did his maternal grandmother. In addition heart disease and cancer run through the family. “My mother, father, one brother, and a sister have all had various forms of cancer. We’re a happy family, but not exactly a healthy one!”
Michael also shared:
I had all the typical preconditions of diabetes. I have been overweight most of my life, lead a sedentary life and have a family history of type II diabetes. I am asthmatic and have high blood pressure. Oh, and I’m also a stress eater.
Michael is the fourth youngest of five siblings. By the time he came along his mother was tired of cooking and the family was better off financially so eating out became routine. “Living in California meant we had tons of restaurant options so we ate out a lot. It was mainly fast food, and we had a steady supply of pizzas, hamburgers and fries.”
Michael was 36 when he was diagnosed with diabetes in 1998. A trip to the doctor because he wasn’t feeling well revealed an astronomically high blood sugar. His doctor said it was a miracle he had been able to walk into the office.
Michael was immediately sent to the hospital for treatment. They began a double dose of the drug Actos and had him down to a stable blood sugar in about a week. “I was basically left alone after that with admonishment to lose weight, eat right, and exercise,” Michael said with a sigh and a shake of the head.
It wasn’t until 2008 that Michael became aware of potential side effects of high doses of Actos. By now he had been on it for nine years. Doctors lowered the dosage of Actos and the drug Metformin was added.
In 2010 trouble set in again. “I started experiencing really blurry vision and felt odd,” recalls Michael. “I was off to the hospital again where they had to give me two shots of insulin to get my blood sugar down.” He was sent to a new endocrinologist after being released. Like all the other doctors, he was adamant about the weight problem.” This time the drug Byetta was added.
Finding the right combination of medicine can be an adventure in trial and error. Michael is a perfect example of the many individuals who take multiple medications to control blood sugars.
Medications were only going to do so much for maintaining the disease. Many of the doctors Michael visited gave the same advice on diet and exercise, but didn’t seem concerned about getting him motivated or educated about managing his disease. Fortunately for Michael the new doctor sent him for a three day intensive workshop with a certified nutritionist.
“We all think we know what’s right to eat, and in some vague sense we do, but I love to eat and always have; it’s a hard habit to break. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say I’ll eat better tomorrow, or next week, or next month.” Finally sent along the right path, Michael’s health saw dramatic improvement.
While taking the nutrition class Michael began to understand that diet was as important to a diabetic as taking medicine. Carbohydrate counting, meal planning, and food combining were explained in detail. “Even with all this help it seemed a bit overwhelming. I mean, who can keep track of all that!” His health scare made him determined to learn as much as he could about managing his diabetes.
The nutritionist grabbed Michael’s attention with these magic words:
For those of you that are tech savvy, we have apps for your smartphones. With them you can track what you eat, download lists of carbohydrates from most chain restaurants, learn portion sizes, and calculate carbs for foods you eat at home.
Michael explained his excitement, “I am an App freak. I have a bowling app that I use when I’m in league to help me keep track of what I’m doing. I’m an accountant by profession so numbers I understand! This was going to be a new game for me. I love keeping track of stuff!”
Within 23 months Michael dropped from 275 pounds to 225. His blood tests that determine a three-month average of blood sugars, called a hemoglobin A1C, dropped to healthy levels. His energy levels rose, and he began to feel great.
When Michael went to the class, his partner Bill attended as well. “We’re constantly together, so we eat at the same time. I am always pulling out my phone to check carbs and portion sizes so Bill has lost weight along with me.”
When friends and family understand it’s all about controlling the disease and staying healthy, they become your cheerleaders. Michael admits having his partner aware of how he should eat is a big help. “Having constant back up and a voice of concern from someone who cares is a major motivator for me. Well, MOST of the time anyway!” But like life, sticking to a diet has its ups and downs.
“I’m still a work in progress,” admits Michael. “Being a stress eater has its challenges.” Currently Michael has regained about 15 pounds and his A1C is up some. “Yep….tax season is getting me again. Once it calms down and we get into summer I’m sure I’ll shed some of those pounds.”
Michael checked his watch and realized his lunch break was over. With a hand shake and a nod, Michael got up to leave. It was time for him to get back to work on those taxes. Driving off in his red Honda, he rolled down the window and yelled as he rolled out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”