Health Column: Living with diabetes is a 24/7 challenge

A woman self-administering insulin. (Credit: Corbis stock image)
A woman self-administering insulin. (Credit: Corbis stock image)

Studies have shown that diabetes, which causes blood sugar to reach dangerous levels, significantly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. For that reason, it’s imperative patients maintain treatment and diet regimens that will enable them to live longer and healthier lives.

Staying on track can become a challenge, as the summer season comes barbecued food and sugary piña coladas, which are begging them to stray.

For those who need may need some dieting motivation this season, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County and the county Department of Health and Human Services have teamed up to offer a free self-management education course at the county center in Riverhead, consisting of four classes starting Thursday, June 16.

“It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” said 58-year-old Joe Gergela, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 7. Those with Type 1 diabetes cannot produce insulin, which helps maintain healthy blood-sugar levels by regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism in the body, according to the AHA. With Type 2 diabetes, the more prevalent form of the disease, either the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin or the body cannot use that insulin effectively enough.

To maintain healthy blood sugar — or glucose — levels, these patients have a 24-hour job. For some, that effort includes administering insulin, but for all it requires following a healthy, well-balanced diet — and the cookies, sodas and pastas most of us enjoy are not on the menu.

“Temptation is everywhere,” Mr. Gergela said. “But that’s the challenge that all diabetics face. I have to be very diligent with my diet, which is very boring. ” He admits, however, that he has been known to sneak the occasional vanilla ice cream cone.

Mr. Gergela said he has taken part in the county-run seminars over the years and has attended camps and had regular visits with physicians and dietitians, which help to keep him from going astray.

Patricia Andronica, a public health nurse and director of the county’s diabetes education program, said the class is designed to help patients get back on track by giving them the knowledge and skills they need to change behaviors and successfully self-manage the disease and its related conditions.

She said that instead of focusing on what not to do, the class uses interaction among peers to drive class discussions.

“People might not care too much about the subject of diabetes itself, but they usually care about their own experience with diabetes,” said Ms. Andronica, a certified diabetes educator. “In a group setting, one participant often raises a point that sparks an interest in another.”

She said the hope is that patients will realistically change behaviors that may be negatively affecting their health — things as simple as switching from drinking juice to eating whole fruit or switching to a sugar-free soda option, which Type 1 diabetes sufferers learn very early in life.

“Everybody is an individual with diabetes, so what might work with me might not work with you,” she said. “The person might need to see what one behavior they may be able to change.”

Ms. Andronica said the class will also provide tips to help patients cope with the stresses of living with a chronic illness.

While the classes are designed for adults, Cornell also keeps kids in mind and is offering two week-long summer day camps in July designed for diabetic children ages 5 to 10.

Known as the Robert K. Sweeney Summer Fun Days Camp, the sessions enable children with diabetes to meet one another in a “fun, non-clinical atmosphere.” Camp tuition is $250 per child.
For more information on the camp visit

The county education course will meet Mondays, June 16 and 23 and July 7 and 14, from 10 a.m. to noon.

To register or get more information contact Anastasia Loper at 727-7850, ext. 340.

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