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“It’s an emergency”: Health educator says rural Virginia faces diabetes crisis

For the Commonwealth as a whole, 10 percent of the population is diagnosed with Type 2...
For the Commonwealth as a whole, 10 percent of the population is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. For far southwest Virginia, it’s closer to 20 percent of the population.(WDBJ7)
Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 6:11 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - For Carolyn Bain, a bag of peppermint chocolates, her treasured treat, almost became the bane of her existence.

“I buy them by the big bag full!” she said.

For this grandmother of five, doctors visits over the last few years harbored unwelcome news.

“I knew it was coming,” she said with a sigh.

Bain’s doctor told her she was pre-diabetic, joining a growing number of Americans potentially facing a tough and costly disease.

“I think it’s a national emergency,” she said.

For the Commonwealth as a whole, 10% of the population is diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. For far southwest Virginia, it’s closer to 20% of the population.

“An even crazier statistic is that one in three Virginians is pre-diabetic, which means they’re getting closer to crossing that threshold into having diabetes,” said Kimberly Butterfield, a family and consumer science agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Roanoke.

She said as baby boomers age, more Virginians face diabetes diagnoses.

“The trouble with pre-diabetes too is that a lot of people don’t know, right, and so if they don’t know, you know, kind of continue with the habits,” she said, “We know there’s this bubble that potentially is coming with more folks who will be diabetic in the future.”

In rural communities like Appalachia, preventing or managing diabetes gets harder.

Butterfield said far southwest Virginia still struggles with food insecurity and access to doctors or clinics who can provide more education and resources.

According to Butterfield, it’s harder to exercise safely in more rural communities and get people valuable education. Not only that, but diabetes is an expensive disease - especially for economically distressed individuals and communities.

“People will say to us, I can’t afford the insulin, I’m only taking half as much as I should or I’m only taking it every other day,” she explained. “That’s not helpful and in fact it can be very, very harmful in managing their condition.”

It’s a condition that can plague entire families over generations, families that have to see loved ones suffer.

“And I had talked to my doctor and I said, if anything happens to me I want the fatal heart attack, the fatal stroke. You know, just wipe me out!” said Bain. “And he said well, you cannot count on that and you do not want to be a burden to your children. And at that point I said, you’re right. And Kimberly came around at the right time.”

Bain joined Butterfield’s free diabetes prevention program - a years-long virtual resource guide and support group that aims to get people like Bain on the right track.

“I have low sodium vegetable broth which I use now to sauté things in,” she said, pulling a carton from her fridge.

Now she’s no longer pre-diabetic, and is well on her way to reducing her medications.

“But this may have started out as a diet. But it’s more than that now,” Bain said. “It’s changes that I’ve made. And you know, pat myself on the back!”

Butterfield said nationally, programs like the ones she runs see 58% of participants reach weight loss goals by the end of the class, with many reversing their pre-diabetic diagnosis.

“Keep looking for what you need, because there are so many folks that want to help and are trying to work on those issues, and we just need to get to those folks who need us,” she said.

Now she’s focused on using Zoom and other COVID adaptations to reach more people, people who might have been hindered by transportation or childcare issues.

And Bain is encouraging others to reach out for help, showing them change is possible.

“My life changed!”

Butterfield says they’re biggest challenge is getting to the people who need their help the most.

She says if you think you could be pre-diabetic, having a conversation with your doctor is a good place to start.

You can also fill out this CDC quiz.

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