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Healthy Monday: Medical providers offer a primer for diabetic living
Connie Niedermeyer, a certified diabetes educator, goes over the food pyramid with diabetes patient Andy Goss. The annual Diabetes 101 event scheduled for Saturday features workshops on managing and understanding all aspects of diabetes. - photo by Tom Reed


Diabetes educator Cheryl Williams talks about managing the disease through diet and exercise.

With most diseases, the doctor just writes a prescription for medicine. But if you’re diagnosed with diabetes, the most important part of your treatment is education.

That’s why each year, Northeast Georgia Health System, the Longstreet Clinic and Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic collaborate to offer "Diabetes 101." It’s a full day of seminars and activities for patients, families and anyone else with an interest in diabetes.

This year’s event is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Mountains Center. Registration is $20 per person, and includes breakfast and lunch.

Cheryl Williams, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator at the Longstreet Clinic, said last year’s event drew about 550 people from 15 counties.

"We have people who come back year after year," she said. "There’s always something new to learn."

But while some longtime patients may want to hear about the latest high-tech glucose monitor or insulin pump, beginners still may be trying to comprehend the basics of diabetes.

Ideally, every patient should have a session with a diabetes educator after they’re diagnosed. But Williams estimates only about half of patients are able to do so, usually because their insurance won’t cover the service.

"That’s one reason a one-day event like this is so successful," she said.

Some of the most popular seminars at Diabetes 101 involve food. People often are unsure about what they should eat, or they want to learn how to prepare healthier versions of their favorite dishes.

Maureen Stoy, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, will give a presentation on "eating for a lifetime."

"We don’t want people to think they’re ‘on a diet,’" she said. "There is no one food that you can’t eat. You just have to know how to fit it in with the rest of your food intake."

Years ago, people thought a diagnosis of diabetes meant they never could eat sugar again. Patients became depressed at the prospect of a lifetime without birthday cakes or Christmas cookies.

"Now we know that total carbohydrates are what counts, not just sugar," said Stoy.

But some patients misinterpret that information and think that carbohydrates are off-limits.

"Many people, when they first come (to diabetes education), are actually afraid of eating anything," said Stoy. "They give up all carbs. But carbs are not the enemy. They’re what your body needs for energy."

The trick is to space out carb intake at the right intervals and to balance it out with how much energy your body is expending.

Stoy said it can take a while for patients to learn how to do this.

"There are different levels of education," she said. "I’ve had patients who can’t read, so I use food models."

Stoy said in addition to learning what and when to eat, people have to become careful shoppers at the grocery store.

"I teach patients how to read labels, how to be a savvy consumer," she said.

But food is only the first lesson. Most diabetic patients are not able to manage their disease solely with diet and exercise. All type 1 diabetics, whose bodies are unable to produce insulin, must take insulin every day in order to survive.

And people with type 2 diabetes, whose bodies can’t process insulin adequately, usually need prescription drugs to control their blood glucose.

All diabetics also must check their glucose level frequently, so they require testing strips and other supplies.

"Diabetes is a very costly disease," Williams said. "Many of the medications, including insulin, have no generic."

That’s why Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle will be a guest speaker Saturday morning.

"He will talk about how patients can be advocates and communicate with their legislators," said Williams. "We have all kinds of advocacy and legislative issues. (Insurance) coverage is a constant battle."

Other seminars will address preventing diabetes complications, such as blindness and kidney failure, and dealing with the emotional aspects of the disease.

At the end of the afternoon, there’s an "ask the experts" panel where people can bring up any questions that weren’t answered earlier in the day.

There also will be exhibits and tons of "freebies" from health care providers and pharmaceutical companies.

Williams said the event is really all about empowerment.

"I tell patients, ‘Diabetes does two things. Either it controls you, or you control it.’"