Dec. 5, 2005 — After living with diabetes for 41 years, Fitzgerald Morris has learned how to fight the disease with three thingseating well, exercising, and keeping his stress level down. "That's because I've found that an unhealthy lifestyle exacerbates diabetesmakes you feel even worse," he said.
Morris, manager of the snack bar at the Ron DeLugo Federal Building on St. Thomas, has first hand experience with "feeling worse." After discovering he had the disease during early childhood, he said he was always irritated that he had to regulate what he ate and drank.
"I would always feel different from the other kids, so I would sneak foodand eventually got to be pretty heavy," he said. "But I also got to be pretty sick. I was always in and out of the hospital, and I never wanted to deal with taking care of my diabetes. I always thought that God was doing this to me on purpose, so I ignored it."
Morris's destructive behavior ultimately led to the loss of his eyesight at the age of 22after which he began to engage in more destructive behavior. "When that happened, I felt like everything in my life was over," he said. "I locked myself in my room for days on end, listened to music, and cried."
One day Morris decided he could not live with being sick anymore. "I realized that I would be this way for the rest of my life. And there was no way I would let the disease get the better of me," he added. "And that year, 1987, was the last time my diabetes had such a negative impact on me."
Since then, Morris has spent his time telling other diabetics what he's learned, and trying to motivate them to do as much as they can to take care of themselves. "Prevention is the key," he said. "Eating right and exercising every day. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of educators or doctors down here that will tell you that, and that's why a lot of people in the V.I. have diabetes and don't know it."
In declaring November Diabetes Awareness Month, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said there are 6,000 people in the territory who have diabetes and don't know it. (See Diabetes is a Silent Killer in the V.I.).
Morris says there is no outlet for motivational speaking on St. Thomas, but he does his part every year by lecturing at the annual Diabetes Awareness Month conference on Tortola. "It makes me feel good to talk to people about it [diabetes]," he said. "And it makes me feel good when they ask me what to do. I wish I could do that in the Virgin Islands," Morris said, "but, other than talking to people who specifically ask me for advice, there is no conference or event in the territory where people can get this kind of information — and there should be, because who better to talk about diabetes than someone who's living with the disease?"
Morris said over the years, he has discovered that the diet of a diabetic should be an equal balance of starch and sugar. "If I don't have any starch in my body, I start trembling, my tongue gets heavy, and I think incoherently," he said. "And if I don't have sugar in my body, then I begin to feel extremely thirsty, tired, and weak. The two always have to be balanced." Too much or too little starch and sugar can cause a diabetic to go into a coma, he added.
He said dairy intake should also be regulated, as milk tends to "enlarge the stomach and build mucus in the throat."
Since diabetics often suffer from poor circulation, they should also continuously check their feet for any cuts and bruises, he said. "Most people don't know that. Sometimes a diabetic gets a cut, and it never heals, and then they have to have something amputated." Morris added long walks help him overcome circulation problems.
Steve Prosterman, diving and field supervisor for the University of the Virgin Islands, has also had enough experience with diabetes to come up with some advice of his own. After contracting the disease in 1966, Prosterman attended diabetes camps on the mainland as a child, where he learned from physicians how to treat the disease.
"When you have the disease, everything is magnified," he said. "For example, if you have diabetes and catch a cold, it's twice as bad for you than the average person," Prosterman said. "But, if you don't take care of yourself and have diabetes, other diseases can affect you ten times worse than they do the average person."
Living on St. Thomas, Prosterman has been involved in helping with diabetes education — creating a camp like those he attended as child to teach adults about treating the disease, and working in the hyperbolic chamber at the Roy L. Schneider Hospital. In both environments, Prosterman said he observed that most local diabetics had not received any education on how to take care of themselves.
"That's why some of the people I saw coming into the hyperbolic chamber were on the verge of needing things like amputations," he said. "And the other thing I noticed is that most people don't realize they have diabetes until they are much older, and by that time, they don't want to change their habits."
Those changes include learning to control how many portions of food are ingested a day, he said — or, how to keep taking the proper medication and keep up with blood tests. "I do six to ten blood tests a day, and five to six injections of insulin," he said. "When I had the camp, we would do about 15 blood tests a day. It's important for people to realize that when they have diabetes, blood sugar levels have to be balanced, and the only way to know if they are is to keep testing."
Prosterman added that it is also important for diabetics not to smoke. Smoking compromises the body's circulation, he said, accelerating the need for amputations in some diabetics, and making other symptoms about 50 times worse.
"That's why it's important to make sure you take care of yourself. Once you do, you'll be able to seize new opportunities, do activities that you'd never be able to do if your diabetes isn't under control. That's what has allowed me to keep on scuba diving, and doing the things I do on a daily basis."
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