By: Helen Bileen
All of my adult life my health has had its ups and downs. I’m sure many factors contributed to the lack of consistency with my health. During my annual visits to the doctors, they wrote in their reports that I was managing my pre-diabetes with diet and exercise. I’m a full-blooded Native American of the Navajo Nation. Type 2 diabetes is running rampant among my people. I know too many people who were diagnosed with this disease and eventually died. I used a low carb diet and walking to control blood sugar level and weight. It worked for a short period of time, and my numbers (i.e., blood pressure, cholesterol, etc.) would always plateau. Then with a busy lifestyle, I reverted back to eating comfort foods.
After I retired from my career, I served a full-time mission for the LDS Church. One day I was complaining to a missionary friend about my lack of sleep, feeling tired, and my craving for more food. She invited me to her whole food plant-based support group which included missionaries and local people. My first impression was that it was too restrictive. I knew I was addicted to food, and I just couldn’t imagine limiting my diet to whole food plant-based. I needed a brownie or chocolate chip cookie at least once a week. Where I served there was always food everywhere: in the Zone office, the cafeteria, potluck dinners, and dining out. I strived to limit myself to eating comfort foods in smaller portions. Even though I had good intentions, I was not always successful!
After serving two and a half years, I temporarily moved in with my son and his family. Naturally, I ate what my family ate. Also, people in the community drove to their destinations. Therefore, I naturally walked less. It was different from serving a mission in downtown metropolitan city where I walked everywhere.
After five months, I began feeling symptoms of type 2 diabetes that previous doctors had taught me through the years. Finally, in March I made an appointment to see a health care provider at a Public Health Service. Since I was new to their clinic they took my blood and urine samples for tests. My new health care provider was astonished to see my numbers. At the time, my weight was about 147 pounds. He was surprised that my A1c was 14 (normal is below 5.7)! The other numbers were also not within normal range. He didn’t tell me I was pre-diabetic which is what I was expecting to hear. No, this time I was full-blown diabetic! He gave me a choice of taking insulin or Metformin to control my diabetes. Years ago I had my gallbladder removed and the doctor prescribed Metformin for me to begin taking on a regular basis. It had side effects that made me feel sick. Therefore, I told him I would try the insulin, and he assured me that there would be no side effects. At the time, I was totally naïve. I trusted my health care provider.
A nurse instructed me in how to use the glucometer and insulin pens. She emphasized that I should always have with me a container of fruit juice at all times. When I begin feeling shaky and very weak, I was to drink the juice right away. In a month when I come for my next appointment, she would teach me what I should include in my diet to help me control my diabetes. Finally, I walked out with a good supply of everything in a big paper bag.
I began administering the insulin that afternoon. I didn’t feel any side effect the rest of the day. However, the next day I felt so weak and out of touch with reality. I wondered if this is how it felt to be overdosed on drugs. Nevertheless, I administered the prescribed 20 units of insulin in the morning and then in the evening. I didn’t question the 40 units I began administering. That day I only had about a 30-minute window where I felt normal. The indescribable, awful feelings before and after throughout my body were experiences of highs and lows much like a roller coaster ride!
The next day on Sunday I didn’t have the strength or balance to make it to my church meetings. I lounged around as I felt so weak and my balance was very poor. That morning I refused to take any more insulin. By Monday, I told my daughter-in-law that everything I was experiencing and the use of the insulin didn’t seem right. She recommended that I read Dr. Fuhrman’s book, The End of Diabetes. The following day, I checked the book out at my local library. I read the first few chapters and skimmed through the rest. It scared me! I learned that it is dangerous for a health care provider to prescribe more insulin than is needed. He states:
The bottom line is that insulin use creates a vicious cycle that cuts years off a person’s life. Insulin both blocks cholesterol removal and delivers cholesterol to cells in the blood vessel walls, increasing the risk for heart attacks and strokes. Almost 80 percent of all deaths among diabetics are due to hardening of the arteries, particularly coronary artery disease. Many diabetics turn to their physician for guidance, but oftentimes the well-meaning doctor only worsens the problem by prescribing more insulin. The extra insulin does not just cause heart disease, weight gain, and the eventual worsening of the diabetes; as with type 1 diabetes, insulin can increase the risk of cancer as well. Type 2 diabetic patients exposed to insulin or sulfonylureas, which push the pancreas to produce more insulin, have significantly increased incidence of cancer at multiple sites. (p. 32)
Dr. Fuhrman also emphasized that “Clearly our present dependency on drugs to control diabetes without an emphasis on dietary and exercise interventions is promoting diabetic complications and premature death in millions of people all over the world” (p. 33). He said the goal for all who have type 2 diabetes is “to reverse diabetes to the point of becoming nondiabetic again, meaning ideally that your glucose levels run below 100 without medications” (p. 20). This became my goal!! If he says I can reverse my type 2 diabetes, I was determined to overcome this disease!
Tuesday, I emailed my health care provider and told him my goal and asked him if he would help me gradually lower the insulin units. By Wednesday, he replied to my email. He explained that there are many types of diabetes. At the end he gave me his blessing that I can lower the insulin units myself, and he closed with a “Cheers!” I told my daughter-in-law that I needed professional help in lowering the insulin units. I couldn’t do it myself because I am not a medical professional nor do I have the background to handle such medical issues. She recommended her local health care provider. I scheduled an appointment with them the next day.
At my appointment the next day the nurse took my blood and urine samples and vitals and interviewed me. I shared with her my goal. Later, my new health care provider came through the door with an enthusiastic exclamation, “You are going to do well with your diabetes!!” I was so weak and out of touch with my surroundings, I thought, “What do you mean? Is there really that much hope?” He put me on the “Insulin Sliding Scale.” Previously, I was getting too much insulin. The sliding scale decreased my insulin units drastically! Also, he gave me a two-page description of a “Simple Whole Food Plant-based” of foods to eat, the amount of water to drink, and foods to eliminate from my diet. With my daughter-in-law’s help I dove into eating and changing my lifestyle to whole food, plant-based. I began walking as much as I had strength to do so. I began keeping a journal and entered all data, what I ate, and the distance I walked. After two weeks, the feelings of highs and lows began to decrease gradually. I began walking longer distances. I checked in with my local health care provider once in a while to share with him my progress. My journal kept me on track as I evaluated each day.
My last appointment was on June 15, 2017. My A1c result was 6.4, and all other numbers were within normal range. My health care provider was so excited and exclaimed, “Your pancreas woke up and it is now doing its job. You no longer need to be on insulin!”
The benefits of living a whole food plant-based lifestyle are too numerous. I feel so much healthier and stronger! Dr. Fuhrman gives a warning after one has reversed his or her type-2 diabetes, “Be aware, though, that once you’ve been diabetic, the tendency to become diabetic again remains if you regain weight or go back to unhealthy eating. This is a new diet style and lifestyle forever” (p. 20). My next appointment will be a year from my last appointment. I began a new journal, “Post Reversal of My Type-2 Diabetes.” In it, I enter each day’s blood sugar and blood pressure levels, vitamin B12 intake, what I ate, the distance I walked, and quarts of water I drank. Three to four times a week, I walk two miles and 10 flights of stairs at a local recreational center within 45-50 minutes. I park the farthest away from any entrance and I take the stairs instead of riding the elevator as strategies for incidental walking which add more distance to the two miles and 10 flights of stairs.
Excellent health is everything! My favorite quote is from Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” My family means the world to me, and they are a precious reason to take care of myself. In addition, I have an enormous desire to accomplish my missions in this life, and I can do this only with a healthy mind, body, and spirit.
I hope my story will reach many other Native Americans with a message of hope. I encourage any and all to watch the following video and share it with Native American friends, “Healing Diabetes in Indian Country.”
Helen B. Bileen (62) lives in Magna, Salt Lake, Utah. She has two wonderful children and five beautiful grandchildren. After retiring from a career as an educator in the Farmington Municipal Schools in Farmington, San Juan, New Mexico, she served a 2 ½ year full-time mission in the Utah Salt Lake City Headquarters Mission from April 2014 to September 2016 where she worked at the Family History Library in the US/Canada Zone. She is now an online BYU-Idaho student majoring in the Family History Research program and is nearing graduation. Her desire is to be instrumental in helping the Native American community with family history research. Helen loves serving in the Church and in the Oquirrh Mountain Temple in South Jordan. She enjoys helping others with their family history research, spending time with her family, and being surrounded by nature.