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A Diabetes Success Story and How to Shape Your Own Journey

Carolyn WalshEvery person with diabetes has his or her own unique story to tell, from the early symptoms to the official diagnosis and all of the challenges and successes along the way. Their stories often are marked by plenty of trial and error, ups and downs, and a long list of dos and don’ts.

To get a better sense of this journey and in observance of National Diabetes Awareness Month in November, we spoke with Carolyn Walsh, director of communications for the UAB Department of Medicine. She was diagnosed in 1997 with type 2 diabetes, which means that the body doesn’t respond properly to insulin, making it difficult to maintain stable blood glucose (sugar) levels.

If you too have diabetes or pre-diabetes, we hope that Walsh’s story inspires you to find a treatment plan that works best for you and modify your daily habits to become the healthiest person you can be.

Trial and Error

A diabetes diagnosis is life-changing for many people, because it becomes more important than ever to focus on diet, exercise, and everyday habits. This was certainly true for Walsh, who spent years trying to manage her condition with various oral medications but was unable to do so.

“I struggled with this for years until my doctor finally referred me to an endocrinologist, who recommended that I start taking insulin,” Walsh recalls.

In 2005, Walsh began taking insulin injections. “I think I was probably like a lot of people who have been newly diagnosed with diabetes who are super strict with sugar and simple carbs in the beginning,” Walsh says. “I remember counting out 15 potato chips as a serving and throwing away the top slice of bread on my sandwiches. But over time, my discipline failed. Realizing that the effects might be serious but not experiencing any immediate problems, I soon reverted to eating whatever I wanted.”

More than 10 years later, in 2016, Walsh’s primary care physician prescribed a promising diabetes drug that ultimately led to her being hospitalized with diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious condition in which blood glucose levels rise too high, causing the body to break down fat much too fast. “The medicine basically made my blood chemistry wonky, and I woke up feeling very, very nauseated,” Walsh says. “I threw up violently and went back to bed feeling exhausted.”

A Turning Point

When her husband checked on her later, he noticed that she was panting heavily. The reaction only got worse because Walsh’s body wasn’t able to properly expel carbon dioxide.

“We went to the emergency room, and I honestly don’t remember much after that,” Walsh says. “I woke up two days later in the intensive care unit at UAB Hospital-Highlands. Thanks to my entire health care team, I recovered and went home. And I was determined that I would find myself an endocrinologist at UAB.”

She chose UAB Medicine endocrinologist Deepti Bahl, MD, who told Walsh that her blood glucose levels needed to improve. Dr. Bahl referred her to the UAB Weight Loss Medicine Clinic, where that team worked closely with her and helped her lose 60 pounds with the Optifast meal replacement program.

“When I began using Optifast, I conditioned myself to reject the notion that I would eventually go back to a normal diet,” Walsh says. “I learned a new way of eating that replaced the unhealthy old way. I weigh myself weekly and make sure that since every mouthful counts, I try to make all the mouthfuls count!”

Learning how to eat mindfully isn’t easy for anyone, but it can mean the difference between diabetes that is well-managed versus being out of control. Walsh set goals to transform her eating habits and be more diligent about managing her condition. She closely monitors her glucose levels with finger-prick technology multiple times a day and also uses a mobile app called mySugr, which tracks several important diabetes-related levels in the body and offers unlimited test strips with a monthly subscription.

“I’m on half of the diabetes meds I used to take, and I feel so much better,” Walsh says.

How exactly does one practice mindful eating day to day? “If I am going to indulge in something sweet, I make sure it is the very best, most delicious sweet I can have – not just something I snag from the break room counter,” Walsh says. “I am also very intentional about buying and pre-cooking non-starchy veggies for lunch. I can have an entire can of green beans for far fewer carbs than a fist-sized baked potato, so I bulk up the plate with those good-for-me options and minimize sides like fries, chips, and pasta.”

Habits vs. Hunger

Though every person with diabetes has a unique story, there are a few common themes that ring true no matter who you are, where you live, or what you do for a living. Monitoring sugar levels and taking prescribed medications are a good starting point, but getting your diabetes under control and living your best life requires knowledge, commitment, and guidance from medical professionals you trust. For Walsh, a key to her success was figuring out how to change her relationship with food.

“While you can shoot up more insulin to address your carbohydrate intake, it is in your best interest long-term to eat sensibly,” Walsh advises. “It is a day-in, day-out struggle.”

As a culture, too often we turn to food for comfort, out of boredom, and as a way to socialize. In some cases, it’s more about habits than actual hunger. Recognizing this can help you change your mindset and begin viewing food as fuel – fuel to power up your body to do amazing things rather than weighing it down.

“Doing the all-liquid Optifast program for six weeks helped me break up with food like a bad boyfriend,” Walsh jokes. “That’s not to say I have mastered this entirely, but I am more consistent than I’ve ever been before.”

Click here to learn more about diabetes care at UAB Medicine, or call (205) 801-8711 to inquire about a referral to our Diabetes & Nutrition Education Clinic. Click here to learn more about the UAB Weight Loss Medicine program, which can help you take back control of your life and health.