By Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Disbelief tends to be a common reaction among those freshly diagnosed with diabetes, but that usually turns to a determination to manage the serious condition.
That’s the assessment of Mary Degnan, director of nutrition services at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and subject of today’s “What are you Eating?” feature in WNY Refresh.
Degnan, a Buffalo and Jamestown native to moved to the LaSalle section of the Falls after landing a job at the city hospital almost three years ago, recently became a certified diabetes educator, along with Jessica Masterson, a fellow clinical dietitian, and a dietary supervisor at Memorial.
Those who choose to ignore a diabetes diagnosis – which often is a surprise – do so at their own risk, said Degnan, who holds a bachelor’s in finance from Fredonia State College and master’s and bachelor’s degrees in dietetics and nutrition from D’Youville College.
“Initially, the response can be, ‘It doesn’t happen to me,’ ‘It can’t happen to me,’ ‘I’m not diabetic,’” she said. “A lot of the patients that we see are Type 2 diabetics, so they’ve been walking around diabetic, with high blood sugars, for a very long time and not been aware of it until they’ve gone to their physician and been diagnosed. So the initial shock and awe gives way to ‘How am I going to do this? How am I going to manage this?’”
How do folks figure out they need to get tested?
“Usually,” said Degnan, “It’s genetic and family members who have it will start noticing symptoms: they’re drinking a lot more or there’s unintended weight loss.
“I just had a patient who didn’t realize she was a diabetic. She was always thirsty, she kept losing all this weight but she was still hungry. She was urinating a lot, but she didn’t realize the signs until a cousin of hers who’s diabetic said, ‘You need to get checked. This sounds like diabetes.’"
Once a diabetic is diagnosed, how does the conversation about avoiding certain foods, like fried foods, tend to go?
“A lot of times, they say, ‘I can’t do that,’ the negative terms,” Degnan said. “So instead of asking them to look at going on a diabetic diet, we’ll say, ‘Let’s count your carbs. Let’s see what your normal eating habits are and how we can fit in carbohydrates and manage your blood sugar that way.’ We talk about making little goals to make changes. If they are a french fry fanatic, you’re going to say, ‘OK, you can have them once a week, but this is what you have to do to make up for that.’"
Those who choose to ignore their diagnosis – particularly Type 2 diabetes – likely will experience lots of complications in the years afterward, Degnan said.
“There’s complication with your vision; neuropathy, where you lose sensation in your fingers and your toes; slow healing of wounds; amputations; kidney disease; heart disease.
“What we’re trying to do with (newly diagnosed) prediabetics,” Degnan said, “is to do general awareness sessions, let people know, ‘If you’re predisposed and have these risk factors, this is what you need to do to prevent it. Get your checkup now and do what you need to do to prevent diabetes. Change your diet now, start exercising.’”
Degnan, a Jamestown High School graduate, understands temptations in the Falls when it comes to food, as well.
“Niagara Falls is not unlike Jamestown,” she said. “A very small community where everybody knows everybody. One of the things I’ve discovered is there’s a lot of good pizza places up here, which is probably not good to hear from a dietitian.”
The former Sheehan Health Services director of nutrition services also admitted to another weakness: french fries with cheese.
“That’s my guilty pleasure,” she said, adding that portion control, exercise and limiting the number of times she will eat them each month is important. “If I have my cheese fries, I either have to do a couple of laps around the park with my dog or another 15, 20 minutes on the treadmill.
“Everybody’s going to break down and have their french fries every once in a while and that’s OK,” she added. “Just keep the portion sizes limited. If you’re going to have a hamburger and fries, don’t have a bun with your burger. Or have a healthier dinner. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll go home and have a salad with a healthy protein, a lean chicken breast. There’s ways to compensate. If you’re going to cheat, cheat smart. Embrace whole grains, try something new, don’t be afraid of your vegetables – unless they’re beets. I don’t like beets.”
I also asked Degnan what she tells people who tease her about overseeing a hospital food service, including for patients, staff and cafeteria customers.
“I get that a lot,” she told me. “A lot of people when they come into the hospital are put on therapeutic diets: low-sodium diets, diabetic diets, low-fat diets or even renal diets. At home, they’re probably not as compliant, so they’re getting used to trying to eat what is as healthy as possible.”
She and her staff will counsel patients on how to improve the taste of healthier foods, too.
“I tell them, ‘This is kind of practice for the real world.’"