Ruby Hope's diabetes got so bad in 2012 that she was in kidney failure and needed a kidney transplant. But she didn't qualify for the surgery because she was too overweight. Along with family history and being African-American, obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes. Hope had all three.
In order to get on that transplant waiting list, she got serious about exercising, eating better, losing weight and monitoring her blood sugar. She did so well that she no longer needed the transplant. But the changes came too late to prevent a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in 2014 — diabetes is a leading cause of heart disease.
"That's when the ship actually started turning in the direction it needed to go," quipped Hope, now 57 and a registered nurse. "Just treating (the diabetes) was not how I wanted to live my life. Becoming healthy overall became my goal."
One of the things that helped her regain her health was a program called DEEP, short for Diabetes Empowerment Education Program. It was presented free of charge at her St. Petersburg church by St. Anthony's Hospital and was open to anyone with diabetes or at high risk for the disease, including concerned loved ones, especially those who buy and prepare the food.
Hope thought that as a registered nurse who had been dealing with diabetes for almost 30 years, she knew everything she needed to know about the disease. But she decided to check it out anyway to support the program.
She soon discovered there was much more to managing diabetes than checking your blood sugar and taking insulin.
Of particular impact was a lesson that showed participants how the blood thickens as blood sugar levels rise. "That made me go, 'Whoah!' " recalled Hope, who completed the six-week program last February. "You would have thought that as a registered nurse I would know that. But I didn't, and it made a big difference to me."
Another participant in that class was Zeke Sims, a St. Petersburg retiree who had been living with diabetes for about 20 years. He took his medications and started walking regularly but didn't change his eating habits.
"Diet was overwhelming for me," said Sims, who spent 30 years working for the Florida Department of Labor. "I was in my 50s and still eating like a college athlete and it just caught up with me. Plus, diabetes is in both sides of my family, so it was just a matter of time. Not if, but when."
When he heard about the class being offered at his church, the 70-year-old didn't hesitate to sign up. "I had nothing to lose, it was out of control," Sims said. "I wasn't doing a good job of managing it myself. I needed some help."
DEEP uses small group meetings and interactive techniques to teach important information about diabetes management and prevention. St. Anthony's targeted churches in high-risk communities that already were involved in its Faith Community Nursing Program, which works with congregations to coordinate outpatient care for church members with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes.
The groups are limited to about 10 participants who meet for two hours, once a week for six weeks, usually in the evening. The 10-month-old program has reached more than 125 diabetic patients, their relatives and friends at five different St. Petersburg churches.
"The goal is to prevent complications, disability and hospitalizations," said Sandra Grosvenor, the transitional care coordinator for Faith Community Nursing at St. Anthony's Hospital, who leads the program. "We cover nutrition, exercise, the role of medications and glucose monitoring and how major body organs are affected by diabetes."
For example, she uses a wire mesh strainer that has been coated with paint so no liquid can get through to represent kidney failure, a common complication when diabetes isn't under good control. She uses a plastic bag filled with tomato paste and vinegar to illustrate how blood thickens and circulation slows with uncontrolled diabetes. That visual lesson really hit home for Hope.
"When you have thick blood going to all your organs, no wonder our feet are numb and we have strokes," she said. "Our blood is full of sugar, it's thick and it's not flowing right."
"It was so informative," Sims said. "Everything was relevant, practical, and the facilitator is marvelous."
Sims especially liked that Grosvenor avoided lecturing to the group.
"There was a whole lot of dialogue going on and very little monologue. It was participatory. We had to talk and that was very effective."
Hope said she needs less insulin after taking the class and now knows to watch for hidden sugars on food labels.
Sims said his numbers — particularly his A1C blood level, a key marker for diabetes — improved since completing the class almost a year ago. But, more important, he feels a greater sense of control.
"I think I'm fully capable of managing my diabetes and overall health now," he said. "There's still work to do, but I'm doing a whole lot better now that I understand how things work together."
Contact Irene Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.