OKLAHOMA CITY – By his own admission, Gerald James loved two B’s: barbecue and buffets. The 51-year-old Choctaw remembers heading straight to an all-you-can-eat buffet for as much as he could hold. After years of overeating and not much exercise, James began to feel the toll.
In 2001, his blood sugar was averaging 600 points; a healthy range is between 90 and 110 points.
“After the holidays, I was diagnosed as diabetic,” James said. “I’m Indian, you know, and I liked to eat. But then I said, ‘I have to take control of this.’”
James began his makeover by working out and altering his diet. His transformation didn’t happen overnight. He worked slowly over a few years with the diabetes prevention staff at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, an urban Indian health clinic.
He is one of thousands of Native people diagnosed each year with Type 2 or diet-related diabetes, an insulin-deficiency disease. At OKCIC, he is one of the 1,261 patients in 2008 with diabetes of its total 9,353 patients.
Nationally, it’s estimated that around 16 percent of Indians have been diagnosed with diabetes, higher than any incidence rate by race in the country, according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.
With no diet or lifestyle change, diabetes leads to heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure and limb amputations for many in Indian country and has become an accepted aspect of life. James decided to change an eating pattern that took over his life.
Identifying and implementing a lifestyle change is one way to contain diabetes, said Cathy Waller, a dietitian at OKCIC.
“This (diabetes) does not have to be a death sentence, but the key is to fight back.”
Waller said OKCIC is trying to make its prevention model accessible to Indians who come through the clinic doors and find they are diabetic. She calls James, the OKCIC’s “poster boy” to help others identify with his personal renunciation, relapse and rebound with food.
With a new wellness center, the OKCIC offers a 12-week model that takes patients beyond a diagnosis with screening, education and treatment. The clinic throws a wide net when launching a new session of its Get SET program.
“We mail out invitations, say we do 50 of them and fewer than that will take the time to respond or show up at the orientation, but it’s usually more than if we just told them about it when they were here,” Waller said. “The ones who come are usually the ones who are ready to change.”
James, a former truck driver, was one of them. As far as diet, it was not uncommon for him to have three pieces of frybread at a time. Now, he only takes one or a piece of one. And if he ends up at a buffet, he picks a salad first rather dive into the fried foods.
“It does take discipline,” James said. “And you need support. At first, I didn’t have any support at home. But you need someone to encourage you, to keep you motivated, to keep going.”
And he works out regularly. Now, James boasts a weight loss of 30 pounds. He credits the OKCIC with giving him the doorway to step into a fuller life. “I feel better this way.”
In the Yakama Nation, Rocco Clark is keeping diabetes onset at bay. The 53-year-old former competition dancer devotes much of his time to teaching the intricate moves involved with Grass dancing. He is also a devotee of Fancy, Traditional and Jingle Dress dancing because of the work out that comes with it.
He emphasizes healthy eating, deep stretching and drinking water as ways to care for the body. His mission began after a local doctor watched one of his classes and told him it was ideal for diabetes awareness. Clark began to practice and preach prevention with the Healthy Heart program. He also dances to foil the illness which has weaved itself through his family tree.
“The doctor told me if I quit moving, I’d develop diabetes, so I keep dancing. I can still do all the moves.”
Clark said Native adults are least likely to get it, but if youths have parental backing and vice versa, success can get a foothold. He teaches among the Tulalip, Spokane and Yakama people.
In the fight against the insulin-deficiency diseases, enemies – like diabetes – are often undetected and then unaddressed.
“We are the only generation that drinks their calories,” Waller said, referring to soda.
For Clark, consistency in diabetes prevention is pivotal. That means putting a limit on frybread, which he calls “prison food.”
“You don’t dance real hard, then stop and say, ‘I’ll have me a Pepsi.’”