Did your diagnosis come as a surprise?
Not really. My mother was diagnosed with type 2 at 65 and her mother at 70. I am one of seven children, and my four sisters and I have all been affected by late-onset type 2. My eldest sister was diagnosed at 56 and passed away about three years ago, aged 67. She developed an infected toe and then her doctor realised her blood glucose levels (BGLs) were really high. Within about four years of being diagnosed she had one leg amputated below the knee, because the swelling from her toe went higher. Then a few years later she had the other leg removed. She was in a wheelchair for about five years, and she was eating the wrong food, so she put on a lot of weight. Sadly, she died of a heart attack. She lived overseas and didn’t have anyone to keep her motivated or focused, which was very hard for her. What she went through was a big lesson for me. I really got to understand that diabetes can take you if your management is not good. My mother was really focused and she lived until 92. My family has taught me that your health is priceless.
How are your other sisters faring?
Two of my sisters have prediabetes and my youngest sister has had diabetes for the past four years or so. They are very careful about managing their health and they are doing well.
So when were you diagnosed?
In 2002, my doctor ordered some routine blood tests because I was about to turn 50. My HbA1c was 5.8, so was only slightly elevated. But given my history, the doctor wanted tests every year, which was fine by me. Then in 2006 I was diagnosed with type 2. For 10 years I managed to control my BGLs with diet and lifestyle changes. This year, though, my HbA1c was about 6.75. My GP said, ‘You are trying very hard but we don’t want to wait for it to get to seven before we start medication.’ I now take metformin morning and night, but I had to really try hard to accept the need for this. I was being a bit naughty and taking one tablet in the morning and then thinking, ‘No, I will not have a tablet tonight.’ But my friends said to me, ‘Vasantha, you are a nurse – you should know better.’ So I did take it and I still do my exercise and look at what I eat. I try my best.
What things are you doing to take care of yourself?
I walk for about 30 minutes every day. I also try to avoid stress and to sleep well. If I have a really good sleep it doesn’t seem to even matter what I eat, I get a stable blood result. I think sleeping and relaxing are very important as we get older. I am 1.57 metres tall and weigh about 85 kilograms. It’s not like me to put padding on around the tummy, but that started just before I was diagnosed with type 2, so I try to control my weight with diet. I think the trick with diabetes is eating things that have high fibre – anything that takes a long time to break down in your tummy. I used to hate lentils because they gave me bloating and discomfort. I have two grown-up sons – they are typical Indian boys and they won’t leave home until they find a girl – and they tell me beans and lentils cause a lot of flatulence. But I soak and cook them really well with lots of ginger, garlic and asafoetida (a spice extracted from a plant of the fennel family) to stop the bloating. So I tell my boys, ‘Be quiet – it is cleaning your guts out!’ We now eat beans with onions in savoury pancakes. I cook them in sesame oil, because it is healthy, and I eat them with a bit of chilli. They don’t push my BGLs up. I also eat a lot of herbs: mint, coriander and gotu kola, which some people call the arthritis plant. Another trick I have is drinking a bit of buttermilk. I put a little hot water with it and have it after dinner and I then I get really good blood results in the morning.
It sounds like you’re pretty good at tracking what impact different foods have on you…
I do try to monitor my diet and my blood glucose levels. I don’t do it all the time, but I might test two hours after dinner to assess what type of foods are sending my BGLs up. If I get a six or seven in the evening that is fantastic for me, because I know then in the morning I will get a five or six. Sometimes if I have eaten chocolate or a treat, I will get a 10 at night and in the morning it will be eight. How has your family reacted to your diagnosis? My husband, Ragu, is very supportive. If my sweet tooth is tempting me to eat some treats, he will say, ‘Don’t take more than one or you will tell me your BGLs have gone up.’ My boys go to the gym and are very conscious of being healthy, too, because they understand my family’s history with diabetes.