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She Helps Her People Avoid Diabetes

“I wasn’t even addressing my high blood pressure until my uncle Jay, in a nursing home at 36, said ‘Don’t get diabetes.’ I promised him, ‘I won’t,’ and it changed my life." - Lynn Cuny

An American Indian woman from South Dakota, Lynn is of Crow Creek Dakota and Oglala Lakota heritage. Also known as “She Helps Her People,” Lynn is 32 years old and living an empowered “life choice” that, despite heredity and predisposition, helps her avoid diabetes.

This path led Lynn to become a certified personal trainer. Also a former teacher for Head Start, which promotes school readiness for preschoolers, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, this year Lynn teamed up with National Relief Charities (NRC) on a diabetes-related project sponsored by General Mills. NRC is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life for American Indians living on poverty-stricken reservations. Together, Lynn and NRC are developing and delivering a health-and-wellness curriculum for Head Start children and families on the Crow Creek Reservation. The youth on Crow Creek are at high risk of diabetes and obesity. One aim of the project is to instill physical activity and good nutritional choices at an early age, in the hopes of averting diabetes. This culturally-relevant curriculum will likely be a model that can be replicated for other reservation Head Starts. Lynn is also a health technician for a Special Diabetes Prevention Program in South Dakota, where she is working directly with people who are pre-diabetic.

At the age of eight, Lynn’s uncle Jay was diagnosed with insulin-dependent juvenile onset diabetes. As a young adult, both of his legs were amputated due to diabetes-related infections. Developing a heart condition was no shock either since diabetes and heart problems often go hand in hand. He was only 36 when he underwent heart surgery and was placed in a nursing home for rehabilitation. During one of their visits, Lynn asked him, “What can I do for you?” His answer was, “Don’t become a diabetic.” At the time, she laughed it off… she believed he must be joking because her fate was already sealed….

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Lynn fully believed she would be a diabetic and that it wasn’t a choice. Fortunately, she was mistaken.

His request stayed with her and eventually helped her see that she had a choice, that diabetes could be avoided, and that she was the only one who could help herself. Doctors had tried to tell her, but it took an experienced loved one telling her to take control, getting through to her that even though her maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, paternal grandfather, and uncle had diabetes, she did not have to… she had a choice. Uncle Jay’s teachings and his passing gave Lynn the clarity and motivation to ward off diabetes.

At the time, Lynn had been on the fast food track. As a struggling college student in Albuquerque, New Mexico, she had worked three jobs to cover tuition. It seemed a help that her boyfriend worked at McDonald’s and cheeseburgers were free. A diet full of starch and devoid of vegetables fit well with her schedule and budget, but her health was spinning out of control. By her early 20s, Lynn was hospitalized three times for blackouts from high blood pressure. She had numbness in her hands and feet—at times so severe that she couldn’t get up. The Indian Health Service had diagnosed her as pre-diabetic.

After the promise to her uncle, Lynn got busy taking off the weight. A Diabetes Prevention Program study shows that prediabetics with excess weight can reduce their risk of diabetes by 58 percent if they lose just 5-7 percent of their body weight. Exercising is most important; it supports weight loss and helps muscle cells use glucose. Starting from around 300 pounds, Lynn walked a lap, then a few, then ran a lap for her uncle, then 10 minutes on a treadmill or bike, and eventually progressed to a mix of exercise and workout routines. “I wanted to feel stronger and healthier; it got easier once I got out there.” She knew she was turning a corner when it felt okay for people to see her 50, 60, 70 pounds lighter.

Changing eating habits was harder. From an early age, Lynn craved carbs, soda, and coffee with lots of sugar; she added super-sized burgers in college. She went through a steep learning curve on the kinds of foods that would keep her healthy and give her the fuel to maintain her exercise and lifestyle. “All the things I craved were not healthy and all the things I never ate as a child were the foods I needed to eat.” After a year of abstinence from cheeseburgers—her former “go to” food—Lynn told herself that she could eat just one… it made her feel tired and sick. The coffee took awhile too; she felt withdrawal giving it up. But Lynn persisted and today enjoys chicken, fish, buffalo, plain salads and fresh raw vegetables, beans for protein and fiber, wheat or multigrain bagels or toast, oatmeal, and flax. She is healthy, and through encouragement and leading by example, “she helps her people.” Coffee and cheeseburgers are a distant memory of the past.