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OPINION: Diabetes strikes at heart of rural Alaska communities

October 12th, 2012 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

Five years or so ago, my sister called me. "Are you sitting down," she asked? Then she told me that my oldest nephew had been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. A whole new world opened up at that moment — a world of needles and late-night blood sampling and trips to the hospital when all the best efforts failed to keep blood sugar levels in the right range. My sister is a paramedic, and no one could have been better prepared to deal with the realities of life with someone suffering from diabetes, and still she struggled. She struggled a lot.

Diabetes, both Type 1, which is a lifelong condition, and Type 2, which can be prevented with diet and exercise, are brutal diseases, and both can be deadly. Last week, nearly 200 people in Kotzebue gathered to walk in memory of a well-loved community member who died of diabetes last summer. Scotty Whalin, Sr., was remembered well as people of all ages filled the streets on his birthday for the first annual walk in his memory. The walk, organized by the Maniilaq Association, was a terrific success, and raised nearly $3,000 for the American Diabetes Association. Whalin worked in the information technology section of the association, and many of his coworkers led the walk with family and friends. They sang him happy birthday, and wore T-shirts with his photo on them. And while it was largely an upbeat event, many commented on the sadness of losing a vibrant person like Whalin at such a young age.

Across the state, an estimated 6 percent of the population are diabetics, and most of those are Type 2 diabetics. Since 1996, diabetes has ranked 7th in the leading cause of death in the state, and the figures are rising.

It's a tough pill to swallow that diabetes strikes those already struggling with health issues such as obesity. It's even tougher when you consider that an ever-increasing number of those with diabetes are children, as obesity rates rise accordingly. Between 1999 and 2007, obesity rates rose 23 percent among Alaska high school students. Today, more than a quarter of Alaska's high school students are overweight or obese.

Adults aren't doing any better. Some 65 percent of the state's adults were overweight or obese and that rate has only risen. Those rates can be attributed to increased trends in a deadly combination — not enough exercise, not enough fruits and veggies in your diet, and the big kicker, way too much television. Add a serious addiction to soda, and you've got a problem.

And even worse, Alaska Native populations have higher rates of diabetes than the rest of the state.

It's getting cold and dark in a lot of Alaska right now. We are losing daylight hours faster than fireweed fluff and in many parts of the state, it's pretty much been blowing and raining for the past two months straight. Not the best weather for exercising, or trying to get yourself to eat well. But before you take to the couch in a permanent state of hibernation, think about this. There's good reason to fight back against these unhealthy urges.

For one, diabetes is expensive. Insulin and all the testing supplies are costly even if you have insurance. If you don't, look out. Doctor visits, testing, and trips out of town to see the few specialists in the state will quickly drain your bank account.

The other harsh reality of diabetes is that it is very unpredictable. Do everything right and you may still wind up in the hospital, suffering from various organ failures, blindness or worse. Do everything right and you may still weather a sea of spikes and dips that make it a constant concern in the back of your mind and the thoughts of your loved ones.

So there's a really good reason to get up off the couch, improve your eating habits and cut down on sugary drinks. And if you know someone who is suffering from obesity and potentially at risk for diabetes, being a positive friend is the best thing you can do, those in the know say. If you are the parent of an obese child or teenager, modeling good choices and stocking your home with healthy foods can go a long way in changing behaviors. Limit television viewing and think of physical activities you can all do.

Looking at all the people who turned out to remember Scotty Whalin, Sr., it's obvious that the loss felt from those who have succumbed to this disease touches the entire community. Hopefully, with more education and understanding, these alarming statistics will start to turn around for the better.


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