Marty Tschannen’s been having trouble with her A1C count. She’s worried that may be damaging to her eyes.
Talking to other people and counseling them; focusing on their problems, offering advice helps the 69 year old volunteer diabetes counselor put her own diabetes in perspective.
Learning to Adapt
“When you’re first diagnosed, you’re just devastated,” says Tschannen, who learned she had Type 2 diabetes 28 years ago, at age 41. “You think you can’t eat anything. At first, I wouldn’t even leave the house.”
Over time, she learned to manage her diabetes, scheduling in exercise, blood sugar checks and, when it became necessary, insulin shots. She revamped her diet, and learned to ignore the temptations well meaning friends and family put in her way.
“I eat on a tight schedule, and some of the organizations my husband is involved in have late dinners, so I basically have to go and just sit there,” she says.
When visiting family in Ohio, only her twin sister pays attention to her eating schedule. The others don’t try to sabotage her, she says, “but they don’t stop to think how it’s going to affect me if they decide to skip breakfast or eat supper late.
These are the kind of everyday concerns doctors don’t address, she says. The newly diagnosed people Tschannen counsels are often “scared to death” and don’t really have any idea what to expect.
“Doctors can tell you about diabetes from the medical training end of it, but they don’t really know what it’s like unless they’ve had it themselves.”
Advice from Someone Who’s Been There
As far as Tschannen’s advice, “a lot of it is just common sense.” She encourages people to test frequently – not because their doctors say so, but so they can find out what works for them.
She’s learned that she can tolerate a small amount of dessert, for instance, while starches like bread and pasta spike her blood sugar. Knowing that, she doesn’t bother with sugar-free treats, holding out for an occasional homemade cookie or a small piece of her daughter’s cheesecake.
“A lot of those diabetic candies aren’t really very good,” she says. “You have to watch the ingredients, because some of the things in there act like a laxative which you wouldn’t know unless you’ve tried it. A lot of it just isn’t very good, either. It leaves a terrible taste in your mouth. Many times you’re better off to eat the regular stuff, but just not very much of it. Everything in moderation is a good rule of thumb.”
Doctors prod patients to exercise, but Tschannen knows what a difference it makes, not just over the long term, but also in her daily life.“Exercise is huge,” Tschannen says. “It really burns up the blood sugar.”
She’s learned to match her activity levels to her meals, and vice versa. She always walks after a larger meal. Even if it’s just taking a few laps around Walmart. She’s careful to avoid exercising on an empty stomach, which can cause her blood sugar to drop. That doesn’t mean she skips her walk. She just grabs a small snack first.
Coping with Complications
Tschannen has learned a lot about diabetes in the past 28 years. She knows that the cold medicine she’s taking will make her blood sugars go haywire over the next few days. Having dealt with it before, she’s willing to compensate in exchange for some sinus relief.
“Diabetes basically makes everything that can go wrong with your body trickier,” she says. When she had a cataract removed three years ago, she worked with her doctor to time the surgery carefully to avoid messing up her blood sugar.
This brings her to the toughest lesson of all; Sometimes you can do everything right, and your diabetes can still go wrong. “I watch what I eat and I exercise,” she says. “I do all the things I’m supposed to do.”
Nonetheless, challenges continue to arise, especially as she’s gotten older. She’s insulin dependent now, requiring four shots per day. A bigger concern is her deteriorating vision. She had surgery recently for retinopathy, damage to the blood vessels in her retina that is likely linked to that mysterious rise in her A1C count.
It’s coming down now slowly. Future surgeries are unlikely to improve her vision.
Night driving is out. Even during the day, she’s afraid to leave her small town of Bluffton, Indiana which means she can’t “just get in the car and go whenever she wants to visit her grandchildren in Fort Wayne, 40 minutes away.”
Reading is increasingly difficult, which makes it hard to keep up with her Bible study group. Though she recently bought an extra-large print Bible. She needs a magnifying glass to read the lesson book. “I just try to keep up the best that I can,” she says with a sigh.
Dealing with Depression
Though Tschannen projects a tough capable exterior. There are times when her troubles get the best of her. “It’s hard,” she says. “Diabetes can be very depressing. That just goes along with it.”
In earlier years, she was prescribed an antidepressant, only to discover that it upset her stomach. She’s since learned to cope as best she can without meds. “Everybody has his or her own way of dealing with it,” she says. Some people go for walks. For Tschannen, the best way to lift her spirits is to pick up the phone.
If she doesn’t have any new patients to counsel, she checks in with people she’s worked with in the past. There are family members to check up on as well. One of her nephews has diabetes. A granddaughter has celiac disease. Her older sister had breast cancer, both knees replaced in addition to multiple sclerosis. Her sister’s medical issues help put Tschannen’s diabetes in perspective.” If my sister can keep going,” Tschannen says, “then so can I.”