Diabetes Awareness Month: Three separate trips, one group mission
Three UAB employees share their diabetes journey and provide health tips in honor of Diabetes Awareness Month.
Written by: Emma Shepherd
Media contact: Hannah Echols
Diabetes affects more than 37 million Americans of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Alabama has one of the highest rates, with nearly 14 percent of the adult population diagnosed with the disease. Additionally, research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows that the state has seen an increase in type 2 diabetes in its youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The diabetes epidemic imposes physical, mental and economic burdens on patients living with the disease. In Diabetes Awareness Month, three UAB employees share their experiences of living with diabetes. The three perspectives show the diversity of diabetics and discuss combating the disease with perseverance, support, and education.
From a diabetes diagnosis to a marathon runner
Michael Sloan, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, grew up in the rolling countryside of Ireland, where processed foods were far from a staple food—everything was farm-to-table. His family would grow all of their own vegetables and fruits, raise chickens for eggs, and buy meat from nearby farms or fresh cuts from the town’s butcher.
When he came to the United States in 1979 to complete his Ph.D., he plunged into a consumer market filled with highly processed food options. A jolt from farm-fresh to an abundance of processed foods, combined with a lack of active lifestyle choices, eventually led to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in 2013.
Since then, Sloan has advocated being active and making healthy lifestyle choices to lower his A1C levels and manage his diabetes. His approach began with smart choices like smaller portions, no sodas or orange juice, and walking around the indoor track at the UAB Campus Recreation Center. Sloan, with a doctor’s supervision, was able to get off metformin within a year or so after diagnosis, and his A1C levels have been in the normal range ever since.
Fast forward to June 2022, when Sloan finished the marathon in Brazil who officially completed the Seven Continents World Marathon Challenge. He points out that the work on changing the entire lifestyle – from inactivity to racing across continents – is beginning with small steps. Then these small steps turned into an unstoppable snowball: Once you made a good choice, encourage another good choice, and so on.
“After being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, I think the key is to change gradually and not suddenly change your behaviors because such strategies rarely persist,” Sloan said. Expect to occasionally break away from your new habits. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes, and get back on the horse.”
Read more about Sloan’s journey here.
Intensive course in diabetes
Ava Michl was traversing her new college world during her freshman year at UAB when an unexpected diagnosis of type 1 diabetes rocked her.
“I spent three days at the Children’s Center of Alabama to control my blood sugar,” Michelle said. “It was a strange experience – I could literally see my bedroom window from my hospital room window.”
What many people’s bodies do naturally without having to think – regulating blood sugar – Michelle was now in trouble to manage on her own. To her, it seemed like a balancing act that required a lot of attention every day: it wasn’t something to be ignored. I’ve learned that diabetes can take a lot from a person, and not everyone understands the burden and exhaustion that accompanies a diagnosis.
To combat diabetes fatigue, Michel joined the College Diabetes Network. It’s easier to deal with her diabetes with the support of her college peers in a similar situation. Michelle conquered her undergraduate career at Abu Dhabi University and graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Now, Michel is a full-time diabetes researcher at the Comprehensive Diabetes Center at Abu Dhabi University while pursuing her PhD in Biomedical Sciences.
Michelle plans to continue her research on diabetes because of the hope it brings not only to her, but to everyone who suffers from diabetes.
“One hundred years ago, type 1 diabetes was a death sentence,” Michel said. “We have come a long way since then, and the life expectancy gap between people with and without type 1 diabetes is improving. I am proud of the diabetes research at UAB, and I hope we can continue to innovate and forge the path toward a better life for all people with diabetes.”
Read more about Michel’s journey here.
Every day is Diabetes Awareness Month
Caroline Walsh was traveling on Highway 459 when she started feeling “comfortable”. She was fighting to stay awake at the wheel, and noticed bouts of drowsiness in and out. Before she could stop, Walsh was in a car accident. Besides the fear, all parties involved were fine.
The incident was a wake-up call. Walsh sought answers about her dangerous drowsiness and was given a surprising diagnosis by her GP: type 2 diabetes. She started treatment but had trouble managing her disease. She finally visited an endocrinologist, who immediately put her in insulin injections, and noted that it was the best thing she had ever done for her health.
However, Walsh found herself at UAB-Highlands Hospital a few years later when she woke up feeling nauseous, tired, gassy, and weak. The team at Highlands quickly realized that Walsh was facing a potentially fatal condition that required immediate treatment: diabetic ketoacidosis. Her cells weren’t converting blood sugar into energy, so her liver started breaking down fats for energy. The endocrinologist at Abu Dhabi University was able to provide a personalized diagnosis: latent autoimmune diabetes in adults, not type 2 as I originally thought.
“Seeing someone who specializes in your particular case is a smart move in managing your health,” Walsh said. “Having a specialist provide me with my latent autoimmune diabetes was a game changer in taking care of myself.”
In 2017, Walsh began receiving nutrition counseling from the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism and a member of the Comprehensive Diabetes Center, Amy Wariner, which she noted was a huge step forward in her diabetes journey.
Now, Walsh, director of communications in the University of Washington’s Department of Medicine, feels she is in a place where her illness can be controlled with the help of her care team. For Walsh, working for an organization that is at the fore in diabetes research and treatment means something personal.
The UAB Comprehensive Diabetes Center is a university-wide interdisciplinary research center with more than 200 faculty members from 10 different schools and many departments. It also serves as an umbrella for numerous research programs and awards, including the prestigious P30 Diabetes Research Center, U01 Human Islet Research Network grants from the National Institutes of Health and several core research facilities.
“My connection is very personal. I received lifesaving care here at UAB, and follow-up has changed the way I live with diabetes,” Walsh said. “And every step of the way, people have been encouraging me to be healthy. When I show up at the clinic and at nutrition counseling, they act like a community that supports me. Sure, I have skin in this game, and they do that too. I hope we win the battle together.”
Read more about Walsh’s journey here.
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