By: Mary Milewski
Della Reese’s positive attitude has always helped her survive—overcoming childhood challenges of poverty, struggling to carve her place in America’s entertainment industry, and dealing with her type 2 diagnosis nearly four years ago whilefilming the CBS TV show “Touched by an Angel.”
In addition to being a successful actor, Reese is a singer and an active ordained minister in Los Angeles.
“I’m a positive person,” says Reese, speaking with Diabetes Health. “I was born in the slums of Detroit, Michigan. I was aggressive. I made up my mind tosucceed, and I stuck to it.”
She has put the same determination into controlling diabetes.
“I do this in all situations in my life. When they told me I had diabetes, I got information on what it is and what Icould do about it.”
In the Spotlight Her Whole Life
Reese started singing at age 6.
As a teenager, she toured with thegreat gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
At 18, Reese was the first performerto bring gospel music to Las Vegas casinos.On television, she has made morethan 300 guest appearances on populartalk and entertainment shows and hasappeared as a regular cast member onnearly 30 programs since 1966.
Reese has received nominations fortwo Grammy awards, two Emmyawards, two Screen Actors Guild awardsand one Golden Globe award. She hashad numerous gold records. For the pastthree years, she has received the NAACPImage Award for Outstanding LeadActress in a Television Drama Series.
Learning of Her Diabetes Diagnosis on ‘Angel’ Set
Reese is possibly best known for starring as the angel Tess in the TV drama “Touched by an Angel,” which has just ended a nine-year run on CBS.
The show features a trio of angels who are dispatched from heaven with the special mission of helping peoplewho face unforeseen crossroads in their lives.
Reese learned of her diabetes during a filming session on the TV show’s set in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It was an outdoor scene,” Reeserecalls. “Wynonna Judd was singing, andI was directing her back-up choir. I heard the word ‘action,’ but I was not aware of anything that was going on until I heard the director scream, ‘Cut!’ I staggered over to a fence. Seeing the condition I was in, they sent a doctor to theset. I was hospitalized for three days.”
Reese notes that she hadn’t exhibitedsymptoms earlier, so she doesn’t knowhow long she might have had type 2 diabetes,which can remain unnoticed for years before it is discovered and treated.
Before the incident on the set, Reesecomments, all she knew of the diseasewas that her mentor, Mahalia Jackson,had died from it and that Ella Fitzgeraldhad lost not only her legs but also herlife to diabetes.
“It was like a death knell,” Reeseremembers. But she now knows that “with information, I have the power to fight it.”
Learning to Help Herself
Reese lives with her husband, Franklin Thomas Lett, in their Los Angeles home. Together, the couple learnedabout diabetes from books and from her doctor.
“We found out diabetes does not have to be lethal,” Lett says. “Then sheadopted a regimen of diet, exercise andmedication. It’s a matter of matchingportion sizes and times to medication.”
The couple loves walking, and they even bought a treadmill when Reese was diagnosed.
At War With Diabetes
Reese is a strong, decisive and determinedwoman. She has known diabetes as a disease that claimed the lives of her closest friends and loved ones.
Today, she speaks with steady, definitivepassion. She’s made up her mind to succeed:
“I’m at war with this. I’m fighting forthe quality of my life. I intend to keepmy legs. I intend to not be blind and tokeep my kidneys working well. I don’tneed a stroke or a heart attack.”
Reese’s message to other people withdiabetes:
“You don’t have to die from this. Youcan live with this. You’re in a war for thequality of your life. Sure, you have to cuta little bit here and a little bit there, butyou can live with a good quality of life.”
In October 2003, Reese launched a national consumer education campaign called “Della Reese: StrongerThan Diabetes.” Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of the type 2 drug Avandia, the campaign aims toeducate people with type 2 about the importance of aggressive testing and treatment in order to prevent complicationssuch as heart attack, stroke, kidney failure and blindness.
The campaign will give away free motivational CDs to help people stay active, along with an information booklet containing tips from Reese on managing type 2 diabetes. You can get the CD and booklet by calling (866) 463-6342 or visiting www.delladiabetes.com.
Paralleling Her Character Tess
Reese’s real-life perspective parallels thatof Tess, the character she portrays on television.
The angels on “Touched by an Angel” don’t come to earth to “fix” people who are in trouble. Rather, they teach people how to fix themselves. They help people who are at a crossroads.
“If people see hope—see that life isnot all about oppression, depression and suppression—and have their eyes opened, then they can become their own miracle,” says Reese.
And Della is indeed her own positive force—her own miracle.
“I’m on this, honey. I’m not goingto come up with any high sugars or low sugars on the set,” she asserts. “I’m consciously aware of this and takingcare of it.”
Q: What is an example of a typicalday for you?
A: I deal with preparing my husband’sbreakfast, and then I prepare my ministrylessons and work on anything else on our schedule. The only thing I do now that I didn’t do before is that I test my blood sugar frequently. I always didTV shoots. You don’t have to change your life just because you have diabetes. You just change your mind and the things that you do against this disease.
Q: How did your work on “Touchedby an Angel” —and your ministry—help you deal with your diabetes?
A: I’m a very spiritual person. I considermyself to be a special, personal friend of God. I will call on Him at any time, anywhere. I believe He will give me the strength to do what I need to do. Mylife experiences will help me, too.
Q: How did you take charge, take control of diabetes and turn your life around?
A: I follow my health plan. And I also have a healthcare helper: my husband. I couldn’t make it without my husband.You should find someone who is interested in you and will help youmake the right decisions.
A Plan for Controlling Blood Glucose Levels
Reese takes 4 mg of Avandia twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening. She tests her blood glucose levels several times each day, prepares foods with less fat and watches her portion sizes.
“I’m very proud. This is absolute boasting. When I was made aware that I had this thing attacking my body, my blood glucose level was 275 mg/dl,” she says. “And if I ate anything, it was 350 mg/dl. But this morning it was 75. And most days I average about 97.”
Although Reese has never cared for exercise, she now manages to fit it intoher regimen.
“My body is astounded if I do any exercise at all. But I have a stationary bicycle that I ride at six five-minute intervals while I watch TV. I do this for a total of 30 minutes.”
Della Reese’s Tricks for Dieting
Reese says her secret to controllingblood glucose levels is food preparation.
“I like to eat—and I can still eat,” she acknowledges. “I make meals that tastevery good with spices and seasonings, sothey don’t exceed the calories or contentsthat I should put in my body.”
She does some things differentlynow that she knows about her type 2diabetes—for example, she carriessnacks, her favorite sweetener and seasoningsfor when she eats out.
Reese loves ice cream. But now shejust eats less of it—and never nearbedtime.
“I used to think it was stupid to goto bed without eating ice cream,” shelaughs. Then, becoming more serious,she adds, “But if you change yourmind, you can change your life. I nowknow that I can’t eat a half-pint of icecream every night and expect to havethe same quality of living for the restof my life. Now I’m confronted withinsulin resistance if I don’t watch myportion sizes.”
Her husband, Franklin Thomas Lett,comments that before the diagnosis,“both of us loved desserts and sweets.Now we both monitor what comes inthe house, to take temptation away.And when we go out, if there’s adessert we both feel we deserve—weshare it.”
Reese tests her blood glucose levelsevery morning, and often before andafter meals. But some days are justbusier than others, she admits.
“Yesterday I only tested oncebecause I was in the middle of a televisionshoot. But today I’ll probably testabout three times, just to make sure.”
“She’s been hitting perfect scores,”says Lett. “I’m very impressed with theway that she’s handled this.”