ALAMOSA, CO- Alex Gallegos, 42, looks and feels different these days.  His knees and eyes no longer bother him.  He eats different; no longer craving sweets or filling his plate at every meal.  He doesn’t stare out the window at passing joggers, wishing he were more active.  He is out there with them.  “I’m feeling good because I’m beating diabetes.  I feel good saying that.”

Alex was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes two years ago.  Knowing that both sides of his family have a history of cancer, Alex made an appointment to have a colon screening. Routine lab work told Alex and his doctor that cancer was not their only worry.

Both of Alex’s parents are Type-1 diabetics.  “They never watched their diet.  They would eat something, then just adjust their insulin.” says Alex.

Three months after he was diagnosed, Alex’s mother died in a diabetic coma.  Standing over his mother’s bed in the hospital, Alex had to make the decision to take her off life support.  “Pulling the plug was an eye opener.  I don’t want to go that way.”

Empowered through education

Over the past two years, Alex has stayed true to his word.  Originally weighing 248 pounds, Alex is down to 215 with hopes to lose another twenty pounds by summer.  After being diagnosed, Alex participated in an educational class through the Diabetes Education and Empowerment Program, DEEP at San Luis Valley Health.

The class, led by Melissa Stehwien, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator, taught Alex how to monitor and regulate his blood sugars with diet and exercise.  Now, he eats more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.  “Before, I was caught up in fast food, eating huge portions.”

Alex will continue to monitor his blood sugars for three more months.  “According to my numbers, I’m not even pre-diabetic.  I’ve beaten it.”

He says his diabetes education has been so important.  “I wouldn’t have been able to do this otherwise.”

Understanding the local need

Between 2007 and 2008, one out of thirteen adults in the San Luis Valley was told by their doctor that they have diabetes.  During that same period, one out of eighteen adults across Colorado was similarly diagnosed.

Correlated to these figures, nearly one out of four San Luis Valley residents is considered obese, higher than the state average of one out of five.

As the seventh leading cause of death, the Colorado Department of Pubic Health and Environment reports that in 2007 the direct medical cost of diabetes in the United States was $116 billion.  The indirect costs to cover disability, work loss and premature mortality add up to an addition $58 billion.  Not only is it costly, but diabetes can lead to a variety of complications including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, dental disease, neuropathies and amputations.

Study proves risk reduction

A landmark study by the Diabetes Prevention Program confirms Alex’s personal experience.  Study participants, who were all overweight and pre-diabetic, were asked to lose a modest amount of weight, seven percent of their current weight.  Participants in the lifestyle intervention group, those receiving intensive individual counseling and motivational support on effective diet, exercise, and behavior modification, reduced their risk of developing diabetes by 58 percent.

These findings were true across all participating ethnic groups and for both men and women.  Participants 60 and older did even better, reducing their risk by 71 percent.

Five years after the study, only five percent of participants in the lifestyle intervention group developed diabetes in compared with 11 percent of those in the placebo group.

The role of prevention

Access to health, including education and preventative health care services, is the number one reason the study participants significantly reduced their risk of developing diabetes.  From 2006 to 2007, only 74% of diabetic Medicare patients in the San Luis Valley received a HbA1c screening, used to measure blood sugar control by testing glycated hemoglobin.  This is well below the national benchmark of 89%.  Regular screening is a standard of care, helping to assess the management of diabetes over the long term, delaying or preventing diabetes complications.

Just as Alex discovered through his preventative cancer screening, the sooner an individual knows if they are pre-diabetic or diabetic, the easier it will be to modify lifestyle and behavior habits.

“It’s crazy how it’s all connected,” says Alex, who works as a Surgical Assistant at SLV Health.  “My knees would hurt and my legs would be swollen after standing all day.  Sometimes my eyes would hurt so bad I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”

Now, Alex’s pain is gone and he still has energy to play with his two young sons.

This past winter, Alex went with a few friends to ice-climb at Zapata Falls.  When his boys reached the top of the frozen falls, they yelled down, “Hey dad, I bet you can’t do this.”  Alex took the challenge, one he would have never attempted two years ago.  He reached the top, just like his two sons.

“They were both surprised and patted me on the back, “good job, Dad.”  I tell them, I’m doing this for myself, but I’m also doing this for you.”

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