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Education

Triumphing Over Diabetes: With Awareness and Effort, It Can Be Done

Leo Haviv was preparing for heart surgery when he learned he has type 2 diabetes. He recalls arguing with the medical staff — he never had been diagnosed before — but the numbers don’t lie. His blood sugar was more than triple what it should have been.

Mr. Haviv, a retired business consultant, is not unusual. Almost one in four people who have diabetes in the United States is unaware of it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The stakes are high. It’s not a question of just some extra sugar in the blood. Untreated diabetes puts people at greater risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, blindness and amputation.

Mariners HospitalThe diagnosis was certainly a wake-up call for Mr. Haviv, 73. After his surgery, he embarked on a journey to reclaim his health with the help of the cardiac rehabilitation department at Baptist Health Mariners Hospital. He lost 66 pounds, got physically fit and no longer requires medication to control his blood sugar, blood pressure or other health conditions.

From being in denial about having diabetes 18 months ago to now, he says, “I feel like I’ve really achieved something.” In addition to his weight loss, his blood sugar has gone from more than 300 to about 85, he says. 

Mr. Haviv hopes his story will help other people understand that they can take control of their health. He concedes that at first he really struggled. At almost 250 pounds, “I was very frustrated that I couldn’t move that much,” he says. Now he walks regularly, enjoys playing pickleball with friends four times weekly, and feels great.

While it requires effort, he says, people can work to overcome a diagnosis of diabetes. “It’s not hopeless. There’s definitely hope.”

Lauren Price, R.N., a patient care supervisor at Mariners Hospital, recalls how Mr. Haviv initially was skeptical. She and the cardiac rehab staff counseled him on diabetes management and helped him exercise. At a certain point, it was like a lightbulb switched on, Ms. Price says. “He became very self-motivated about his lifestyle and dietary changes. Leo is a shining example of someone who took charge of his health. He really did the work.”

Mr. Haviv, who lived in Islamorada at the time but has since moved to Miami Beach, stays in touch with Ms. Price and the Mariners Hospital cardiac rehab staff. “They were extremely helpful,” he says. “They really helped me through my challenges.”

Recently he was happy to inform them of what he calls a major breakthrough — his progress has allowed his doctor to discontinue many of his medications, although he continues to monitor his blood sugar so he stays on track.

Discovering he had diabetes turned out to be a positive for his life. “It helped me crystallize what I needed to do — which was to eat more whole foods, lose weight and exercise,” he says.

He doesn’t pretend it was easy, but it was definitely worth the effort to get healthier, especially now that he has learned more about diabetes and its long-term implications. “You have to set your mind on these goals,” he says.

Diabetes occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. As a result, sugar stays in the blood rather than being used up as energy. Over time, high sugar levels can damage nerves and blood vessels and put someone at risk of hardening of the arteries, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Some 37.3 million people in the United States have diabetes, according to the CDC. Another 96 million adults have prediabetes, when a person’s blood sugar level is higher than normal but not high enough for a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. 

In 2021, an updated guideline issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force called for adults to be screened for type 2 diabetes or prediabetes starting at age 35, five years earlier than previously advised. Studies have shown that 90 percent of all type 2 diabetes cases could be prevented, or significantly delayed, simply by eating healthier and getting physical activity.

Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., chief population health officer for Baptist Health, has long advocated for preventive monitoring and coordinated care. It’s a message that bears repeating, especially during Diabetes Awareness Month.

Diabetes and pre-diabetes are both significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease, illnesses and death,” Dr. Fialkow, who also serves as chief of cardiology and deputy medical director of Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, said on Baptist Health’s podcast, HealthTalk. “While the good news is that this condition can be controlled — and, even better, prevented — there are many implications and dangerous consequences if it’s not recognized, or if it’s ignored.”

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With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.