My dad, my career and the D word

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Diabetes snuck into my family when I was 4 years old and then decades later transformed my own career. One evening, while mom was preparing rice and lentil curry (sambhar) for dinner in our small town of Dindigul, India, my dad walked into the house with a serious look on his face.

My dad told me, my sisters and my mom that his life would be forever changed because he had just returned from the doctor and received the test results from his checkup. My dad was hardly 30 years old, so I assumed that it could not be anything major.

But I was wrong; he said that he had diabetes.

My own father could potentially become another victim of this illness.

Well, I overheard my parents having a long conversation about lifestyle changes he would have to abide by. I was worried and wondered if he had a strong will to transform himself to lead a healthy lifestyle and be responsible to raise a family. For all of his life in a small town in India, he had eaten a diet heavy in rice, starches, carbohydrates and sugars.

Could he change? I did not know if he could do it.

As the months passed by, I noticed a sudden transformation in my dad. He woke up early in the morning and practiced yoga and took morning walks through the woods. He reduced his consumption of rice and sugary products.

When I was 7, I joined him. We did headstands and performed deep breathing exercises with eyes closed for half an hour every day.

I learned from him that diabetes can lurk for years. Hence, proper prevention education and early screening is vital to the early diagnosis of diabetes.

That was then. Now, he is in good health and is leading an active healthy lifestyle because he made some drastic changes in his life.

And three decades later, as a public health professional, I seem to be discussing the same lifestyle changes with the community members in Georgia.

Although being referred to as sugar disease, diabetes causes bitterness from head to toe. This is exactly what I experienced treating patients with diabetes complications in a rural hospital in Dindigul, India.

It was sad and frustrating to watch as their complications accrued. I saw them have their legs or toes amputated. I watched them go blind.

There was so such misery and ignorance about the illness.

Somehow, the health system was failing them. They needed to hear the message of prevention.

Diabetes transformed my career path from a practicing physician treating illnesses to a non-practicing public health practitioner advocating for wellness. My purpose in this world, I grew to realize, was to advocate for prevention rather than treat complications.

I moved from India to the U.S., and as a public health practitioner providing the public health perspective on a public health epidemic, I try to shine the light on diabetes every day.

We do not have to wait for Diabetes Alert Day or a health observance day to spread the message of diabetes prevention. You may ask how bad the diabetic epidemic is. Globally, China ranks No. 1 with 90 million people living with diabetes.

India is second with 61 million people, and the U.S. is third with 26 million diabetics.

Diabetes is not an epidemic, but in fact a tsunami.

I am not going to sit here and beat around the bush, but call it as it is. We, healthcare providers and healthcare recipients, need to join forces, plan and move away from our silo mentality. We need to develop a common vision, a vision we all agree upon. Every family, whether you consider yourself at risk or not, needs to wage a war on diabetes and it is all about being prepared. We need to wake up, we need to change the way we think and act when it comes to diabetes. We need to take this disease seriously.

What can you do to bring the diabetes trend down? As much as early screening and diagnosis are critical to successful treatment and delaying complications, empowering individuals with prevention knowledge is important. That includes young children. Nutrition education should start in early childhood. And so should physical activity.

It is not just about individual behavioral change but also societal changes. Helping to change the food economy such as moving away from high fructose corn syrup, soda and soft drinks is important. We need parents to push for vending machines in schools with healthy choices. Same goes for offices.

We have all the resources, now we need to use them. How do we start with gaining the city first and then county by county?

We have to be smarter than diabetes. We know we cannot do it alone, but together we can. Let us join forces and win this battle against diabetes.

Nazeera Dawood is health promotion program manager for the Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness.


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