Betsi Yates has been living with diabetes most of her life, but it wasn't until adulthood that she began to suffer from the complications of the disease: a bout with blindness, nerve damage in her limbs and extremities, and amputation of her toes.
Hers is a cautionary tale and Yates is eager to share it as the adult ambassador for the Western New York Chapter of the American Diabetes Association. The association's "Winter Walk for Diabetes" is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sunday at Walden Galleria in Cheektowaga.
"I always wanted to help the kids," Yates said in a recent interview. "I don't want them to have to go through what I've gone through."
At age 12, Yates, who now lives in Buffalo's Riverside neighborhood, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after she passed out at her home and went into a diabetic shock. For 19 hours after that, she was locked in a coma; she spent a month in the hospital.
The experience, frightening as it was, did little to shake Yates' youthful sense of rebellion and invincibility. So she failed to heed her physicians' advice on how to attend to her illness.
"I really didn't do anything I was supposed to do. I took my insulin, but I ate anything I wanted to because my friends were eating what they wanted, so I figured I could, too," said Yates, 48.
"I ate French fries, ice cream, pizza, all the bad stuff," she added.
Eating foods such as those was elevating Yates' blood glucose levels to such a degree that she was putting herself at risk for going into diabetic shock again or having a stroke. And in early adulthood, she exacerbated the problem by drinking alcohol and smoking. The long-term effects of these lifestyle choices didn't catch up with her until her early 30s, five or more years after she quit drinking and smoking.
"By then, it was too late. I started to experience nerve damage in my feet," Yates said.
"I've had many surgeries on my foot. I've had a toe and half a toe amputated, bones removed from my toes. My little toe, I call it my periscope, because it sticks up and never goes down," she added, with a laugh.
Despite her travails, Yates manages to laugh easily. It is her sense of humor and her religious faith that get her through the tough times, she said. A few years ago, she was blind for a brief time as a result of a detached retina in one eye and a hemorrhage behind the other.
"I'm blessed in many ways, because I do have my sight. It's not perfect, but it's better than it was," said Yates.
Rebekah Mingo, a spokeswoman with the Western New York Chapter American Diabetes Association, said diabetes is the fifth leading cause of death by disease in the United States, and many who have it don't know it.
"Diabetes has a tendency to creep up on you," said Mingo.
More than 40 million people between ages 40 to 74 in the United States have pre-diabetes, she said. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form. It either inhibits the body from producing enough insulin or causes cells to ignore the insulin. Insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use sugar, the basic fuel for the cells in the body.
Yates is among the 5 percent of diabetes sufferers with Type 1 diabetes, which often results from a viral infection that attacks the immune system.
After all she has been through, Yates tries to stay on top of the disease. She eats a proper diet and exercises daily, including occasional yoga and resistance training.
"I've been doing this for years," she said. "When I talk to people [who have been recently diagnosed], I tell them not to be afraid, which I was at first. As long as you follow your diet and exercise you can [stave off] the worst of it. Don't let the diabetes run you. You run it."