Last week I received one of those calls no one ever wants to get. At 6:19 am on a Monday, I woke up to “your brother is in the hospital.” You could replace “brother” with child, parent, grandparent, best friend, or any loved one and your heart will drop just as fast. It’s never a good feeling to think that someone you care for is in pain – and an even worse feeling to know that their life could be in danger. In this case it was diabetes, or what I am now calling the silent killer.
My brother had been experiencing certain symptoms for a few weeks – namely, constant thirst and urination, but also a lack of desire for his favorite food: snacks. And because it runs through our family, he immediately thought he might be developing diabetes. When I spoke to him the Saturday before he promised me he would be making a doctor’s appointment first thing on Monday. So to find out that he never made it to the doctor on his own, a different kind of alarm bell was going off for me that morning.
In the early hours of Monday morning he had experienced dizziness and started losing his vision. So he went to the emergency room around 5 am and when they measured his blood glucose level it was 861. The normal range for a non-diabetic person’s blood glucose is between 70 and 130, and since his was so high his body was bordering on a complete lack of insulin and he was instead developing ketones in his blood, so they diagnosed him with diabetic ketoacidosis. With blood sugar levels that high, they said he could have slipped into a coma or worse. So they gave him IV’s of saline, potassium and insulin, and moved him to the ICU on a 24-hour watch until his levels normalized. Needless to say it was a rough 24 hours.
The American Diabetes Association asserts that, compared to the general population, African Americans are disproportionately affected by Diabetes, and estimates that 13.2% of African Americans are diagnosed with diabetes as compared to 7.6% of whites. Hispanic Americans are up there too, with 12.8%. The ADA also reports that diabetes kills more Americans every year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. So to find out that my brother could have died when really the only symptoms he had were thirst and frequent urination not only brings tears to my eyes but also sends panic through my entire body.
You’d think a disease so serious would have more serious symptoms, but it doesn’t – so many people go about their daily lives never even knowing that they have it or are developing it. Normal “blood work” during annual physical examinations doesn’t usually measure blood glucose and unless you have a relative or other loved one who has experienced it, you may never think to ask to have your blood tested. Even as someone who has a history of diabetes within my immediate family, I never thought about either. To me it always felt like something I may have to deal with when I’m 50, 60 or 70 years old – but my brother will be turning only 43 next week. So this has rocked my world almost as much as it has rocked his.
So what does this mean for me and other black and brown twenty-somethings out there? If there’s one thing I know about us, we like convenience. Unfortunately, that can mean fast food restaurants and other quick meal solutions that could just end up pushing us even further down the path to diabetes. And being someone whose weekly menu consists of bagels, burgers, cakes and cookies, nobody knows better than me how difficult it is going to be to shake those habits. But the other thing I know about myself and us as Millennials, is that we know how to be informed. Small changes as simple as reading labels and cooking at home rather than eating out can make a huge difference on your health (and on your wallet). Knowing that it isn’t just sugar in the traditional sense that can cause a problem, but rather carbohydrates overall as being potentially harmful when consumed in excess, also helps us to make more informed choices out of the food options available to us.
For me, this was definitely a wake up call to change my eating and lifestyle choices while I still have the chance. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but at least I will no longer be able to feign ignorance – from here on out the choices I make will be conscious, and I hope yours will, too.