The first time Chris Matthews heard the words “high blood sugar” was in 2002 at a doctor’s office in Washington, DC, where he was being treated for malaria after a trip to Zimbabwe. He didn’t pay a lot of attention to the warning about his glucose levels after a blood test. The malaria was subsequently cured, and he continued at his usual rapid-fire pace, traveling the country giving speeches about his best-selling books (“Life is a Campaign” is his latest; “Hardball” is his best known) and his work both inside the White House, where he was a speechwriter for President Carter, and outside, where he was administrative assistant to House Speaker Tip O’Neill on Capitol Hill. Then there’s his work on television, where he is host of Hardball on MSNBC and the Chris Matthew Show, which airs on Sundays just before Meet the Press on NBC. He stayed busy, and his schedule remained overbooked. He let the warning about high blood sugar go into the background-so far back it was out of sight and definitely out of mind. Besides, there just wasn’t any room in his life to deal with it.
The next time Matthews visited a doctor was for his annual physical. Those same words, high blood sugar, were repeated, and the result was the same. Now there were a lot of other things on his mind: a presidential election had to be covered, publishers were asking him to write another book, big money was being offered for more speeches, and Hardball was gaining viewers.
“I never had it in my head about checking blood sugar,” he says, looking back at those moments. “I ignored diabetes. I didn’t know what high blood sugar meant. And when the doctor would tell me about it, I always said ‘Yeah, OK,’ and left it at that.” When asked about diabetes in his family, Chris answered that his father had it before he died at age 85 of a heart attack. He never connected the proverbial dots, despite the doctor’s repeated warnings. After all, he had things to do.
Jump ahead to December 6, 2006. Chris had a big day ahead of him. His wife, Kathleen, was retiring from her job anchoring the news on WJLA-TV in Washington, DC, and a big party was set for later that evening. He planned to be there as soon as Hardball was off the air, but all day long, he’d been feeling less than great. When the shooting pains in his stomach became too much, Chris drove to his doctor’s office, where some tests were run. The next event wasn’t on his schedule either. It was an ambulance trip to the emergency room at Washington Hospital Center, where more tests were run. When the ER staff looked at the results, they noticed a blood sugar level above 350. Yes, those words again.
Chris didn’t make it to his wife’s party. Instead, he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and admitted to the hospital for two days. He had to take a few weeks off from television so that he could work with his doctor on the right amount of pills to take (Januvia and metformin) and find the correct amount of Lantus insulin to inject in the evening. From that moment on, taking care of his diabetes was part of Chris’s daily schedule.
“I’ve always had to deal with high blood sugar,” he says, “never hypoglycemia, except for one time: I was actually driving home from my doctor’s office on the East West Highway outside Washington, DC, and still trying to get used to the pills and the insulin. Well, it was that feeling of a rainfall occurring inside yourself. My shirt was drenched and I was scared. I got home, thank God, and I was trying to decide what to do. My son brought me orange juice and then I ate some chicken and rice, but it took a while to start feeling better. As I’m going through this, the phone rang. It was Ted Kennedy. ‘I heard you’ve been sick,’ he said, before telling me that a number of members of Congress have family members who deal with diabetes every day. While I was talking to him, I kept thinking what had just happened and how fast it happened.”
When he came back to Hardball, Matthews didn’t hide the reason he’d been away. Of course, by that time, many industry columns and blogs had already reported he had type 2 diabetes. “I’m back. I’m healthy,” he announced on the set of Hardball on location at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, accompanied by Senator John Edwards, who was about to get into the presidential contest.
“I accepted it,” he says, reflecting back on that day. “I didn’t mind it then because I just said to myself, ‘you know, this is no big deal.’ It’s like shaving. Testing blood sugar is just one of the things I have to do.”
One of the things he isn’t doing, however, is exercising. “I’ve got my A1c in the 6% to 7% range,” he says with the same intensity as if talking about the most recent economic stimulus proposal. “My blood sugar is in the low 100s, but I just can’t get myself on the treadmill.” (It has been sitting unused in the basement.) “I could probably do it for a half hour when I wake up and watch ‘Morning Joe’ (an MSNBC political show airing from 6 to 9 in the morning). This is something I have to get serious about. I just haven’t found the time.”
Chris Matthews does pay attention to food now. He makes his own cup of coffee in the morning instead of what had been his usual routine: going out to Starbucks for a frappacino and a pastry. He doesn’t add milk to the coffee anymore, citing a desire “not to waste the calories.” Breakfast usually includes a bowl of “Special K.” The Matthews family has a former military chef who comes to their house every Monday and prepares dinners for a week. Now that diabetes has a place at their table, fish is a common entrée. “Lunch is my problem area,” Chris says. “I always eat in the NBC commissary. Usually I’ll get a sandwich or whatever their special is. I guess you can describe lunch as ‘pot luck’ because I’m never really sure what I’m going to get.”
In an all-too-rare quiet moment, Chris looks back at those days in Philadelphia when part of the culture was a daily intake of cheese steak and fries. “We grew up with bad habits. All of us did in the 50s and 60s. I remember my dad stopping at a bakery after church every Sunday, and we’d each eat two donuts. My mom would prepare huge meals with lots of butter and fat. I had a paper route, and I’d drink bottles of soda loaded with sugar instead of getting a glass of water, and not once did anyone think about it. But then this happens, and I can tell you, this is what it took to get my attention.”
Right now Chris’s schedule is still booked solid. But jammed into that encyclopedic mind of all things political, somewhere between a report card for President Obama’s first 100 days and how the AIG bailout mess got past Congressional leaders, you’ll find the three words “high blood sugar” still in the background. This time though, although they’re out of sight, they’re no longer out of mind. Now, Chris Matthews is really playing hardball.