Diabetes Struggles Can Ensnare Anyone

'Chicago Med' star S. Epatha Merkerson talks about need to set goals

by Kristen Fischer | Updated 09 May 2016 at 11:06 AM

On the hit television show “Chicago Med,” S. Epatha Merkerson plays Dr. Sharon Goodwin, the chief administrator who keeps Gaffney Chicago Medical Center together.

In the “Chicago Med” world, Goodwin sees many people coming into the emergency department with complications from type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes and complications from the disease are behind a tremendous number of emergency department visits and hospitalizations each year — 12.1 million visits by adults in 2010 alone.

Health experts credit a lack of primary care, poor adherence to care plans and lifestyle modifications, and complications as the main reasons for emergency visits. Patients with poor control over their blood sugar and overall diabetes management have a greater risk of cardiovascular, kidney, eye, and nerve diseases. 

“She would be extra knowledgeable about it,” said Merkerson. “She would be very supportive of any program that would help promote education.”

That’s because the former “Law & Order” star has type 2 diabetes.

Taking the Challenge
Merkerson recently teamed up with Merck, iHeart Media, and the American Diabetes Association on America's Diabetes Challenge. The initiative, "Get to Your Goals," encourages Americans to work with their doctors and reach their A1C (blood glucose level test) goals. It also inspires people to see if they have low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) and shares information on how to reduce their risk.

"If you know these things, you know how to be proactive," she said.

Diabetes by the Numbers
  • 29.1 million people have diabetes
  • 21 million are diagnosed
  • 8.1 million are prediabetic
Source: http://www.diabetes.org

Merkerson said she hopes people share their stories of living with diabetes on AmericasDiabetesChallenge.com in order to support others with the disease. The stories shared will help create more resources to help people newly diagnosed or living with blood sugar diseases.

"It's a great resource for people who were like me, who had no knowledge of it," she said.

One aspect of her partnership is to share her own story.

Life as a Diabetic
When she was diagnosed 13 years ago, the Tony-nominated stage performer said it was a shock.

"The irony is that I come from a family who has suffered from type 2 diabetes. It's definitely part of our history," Merkerson said.

She said she didn't recognize the symptoms until after she was diagnosed.

"We never really had those conversations," she said of her family. For years, she wasn't really outspoken about her condition.

Life changed dramatically upon her diagnosis. She had to change her entire lifestyle and that was not easy.

She was 50 when she was diagnosed, and noted that she was very set in her ways as far as what she ate and how active she was.

"Those are the things that have been the biggest things for me to change," she said. "I had to break a lot of habits."

"When you're at that age, there are habits that have been with you for years," she explained. "I had to learn how to eat and how to eat properly." She had to put a lot more fruits and vegetables into her diet — and had to stop skipping meals. Diabetes patients must rediscover how to eat properly.

The actress said she has learned a lot along the way. She also understands that her diabetes symptoms and treatment options may shift over time.

"It's a progressive disease," she said. "My treatment plan may change over the years."

Merkerson tests her blood sugar twice daily so she always knows her levels. Then she can work with her doctor and tailor her approach as needed.

Every Voice Matters
She hopes others will share their stories as well. "They shouldn't lose hope. They shouldn't lose heart or get discouraged," Merkerson said.

One of the things she was taught since her diagnosis is that it's important to spread the word and educate others.

"Being able to come from a very personal point of view is, for me, quite rewarding," Merkerson said.

Now 63, the actress feels great and enjoys talking with others about living a healthy lifestyle.

"Without my health, I really have nothing," said Merkerson.

She added, "I can be a much stronger person in mind if I'm healthier."

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