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A fight for life

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UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. – Imagine sending a child into a restaurant to see if they have table and chairs that you can fit in. Picture attending a conference and discovering that you can’t squeeze into the desks that are available. Consider not being able to shop locally for clothes because local retailers don’t carry clothes in your size.

That was the life of Patty Teeples, an Upper Peninsula Native American woman living with type 2 diabetes, up until this year. Teeples grew up in a family of bakers where food was abundant and never denied. By the time she was in the fifth grade, she weighed 200 pounds. In 1993, just after the birth of her second child, Teeples’ weight was 270 pounds. By 2007 she was up to 374 pounds.

Things changed for Teeples that year when her doctor told her that her diabetes was way out of control. Having been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2002, she was taking four different oral medications to control her blood sugar but they weren’t working. Most of her blood sugars were over 300. Her doctor told her she had three options, have gastric bypass surgery, start using insulin or see a registered dietitian.

Despite the fact that her brother had recently died from complications of uncontrolled diabetes and her father had also lived with diabetes, Teeples had successfully avoided the dietitian since her initial diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. She decided to see her dietitian in order to prepare herself for gastric bypass surgery and the eating changes she would need to make.

That was one and a half years and more than 120 pounds ago. Working with Gail Sulander, registered dietitian and diabetes educator at the Sault Tribe in Manistique, she started to learn how to take better care of herself. As she said, “I was killing myself with food and didn’t even realize it.”

American Indians and diabetes
Diabetes was rare among American Indians just 50 years ago. Now Natives, both adults and children, have one of the highest rates of diabetes across the nation. Almost 8 percent of all Americans have diabetes. The rate among Natives served by the IHS is 14.5 percent. Some think this number is underestimated. The Pima and Tohono O’odham Tribes of Arizona have the highest diabetes rate in the world with half of all adults between the ages of 30 and 64 having diabetes. Unless changes occur, other tribes may reach the same level. The rate of diabetes related complications is also higher for Natives. Uncontrolled diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure with rates that are six times higher for Native Americans. Diabetes is also the most frequent cause of foot and leg amputations and amputation rates are three to four times higher for Natives than the general population. American Indians with diabetes also suffer from vision loss, heart attacks and strokes. Fortunately for Natives like Patty Teeples living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all U.P. tribes have diabetes educators and dietitians who can help tribal members control or prevent diabetes and the complications that are linked to diabetes. For more information on where to get diabetes education or nutrition counseling in your area contact your local tribal health center.

With education and support from Sulander and with the help of her family and friends Teeples was able to avoid gastric bypass surgery and the use of insulin. In fact, she has reduced the number of diabetes medications she takes and her blood sugar levels are now in the normal range. She saw her A1c (a measure of average blood sugar levels over 3 months) drop from 11 percent to an amazing 5.9 percent. Teeples took control of her diabetes and her weight by eating healthy and getting active.

The first physical activity Teeples did was move her body during commercial breaks when she was watching television. She would walk around or just move her arms. Next, she started riding an exercise bike. Today she rides the exercise bike or rides outside with her husband and son every day. She rides her bike thirty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the evening, seven days a week. Teeples has learned to schedule exercise on her daily calendar because life can get too crazy and planning for exercise makes it harder to skip.

On the food side, Teeples still continues to include her favorite foods and no foods are off limits to her. She simply eats less of everything. She plans her meals ahead of time and makes certain to start each day with a healthy breakfast, something she never did in the past.

Making changes wasn’t easy for her. For the first six months she would lie in bed at night and complain to her husband that she was hungry. Self-talk helped her overcome the “false” feelings of hunger. She would tell herself, “You are not hungry; you’re just learning how to eat normal portion sizes.” Teeples said that before she started working with Gail “every meal was like Thanksgiving. I felt stuffed after every meal.”

One of the biggest rewards for her is being able to do things with her husband and son. She went to a haunted house with her son this year for the first time and this past summer she was able to go hiking with her family. These may seem like small accomplishments to some people but for Teeples it is just one more way her life has improved because of the lifestyle changes she has made. Patty wants others to know, “It is up to you to take control of your life. For me, meeting with Gail, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator, and getting support and help from my family was and will continue to be critical to my success.”

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