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A Student’s Story: Building a Better Future for People with Diabetes

By IHI Open School | Thursday, December 18, 2014
The Open School is offering a new course on leadership skills to enable communities to improve health. With this eight-week course, Leadership and Organizing for Population Health, we’re testing a new format that features week-by-week lessons, video lectures, virtual meetings, and peer review of assignments. Health students must apply by Jan. 15, 2015 to take the free course, which begins on Feb. 15.

As part of the course, students learn to tell personal stories that motivate others to take action based on a common purpose. Alesha Wright, a doctoral student of public health at Georgia Southern University, wrote this story as an assignment in the fall 2014 course, inviting Open School students to join her in working to fight diabetes.

Growing up, I visited my maternal grandmother and great aunts every year in Alabama during summer breaks. My grandmother and great aunts grew up on a farm, harvesting fresh vegetables in a rural community with limited access to grocery stores and health care, and minimum exposure to health education. As the youngest sister of eleven siblings, my grandmother assumed the role of a caretaker. For daily dinners, she would prepare foods such as fried chicken, collard greens with ham hocks, and sweet potato pies full of saturated fat, butter, oil, sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup. These foods were a traditional part of my family culture. 

As I got older, I witnessed my great aunts suffer from diabetes as a result of their diet and environmental factors. Every morning, one of my great aunts had to inject insulin in her thigh or stomach area. I remember the fearful look in her eyes when she experienced dizziness, shaking, confusion, and a pounding heartbeat due to low blood sugar. Another great aunt, along with the other family members, had to make a life-changing choice to have both of her lower limbs amputated. These complications of diabetes reduced my great aunts’ quality of life significantly.  Through these experiences, I have become determined to advocate for diabetes prevention through tailored innovative interventions, improved access to health care, diabetes self-management programs in underserved populations, and better exposure to health education (i.e., importance of consuming fresh fruits and vegetables and engaging in physical activity).   

The Open School community consists of students, residents, health educators, and faculty throughout the United States. This community brings an array of knowledge, skills, and expertise with a shared value of exercising leadership to improve the health of populations. Additionally, this community shares the value of systems thinking, which is a critical skill in understanding the root causes of a problem. Furthermore, as leaders in the Open School community, we have experienced a loved one or heard of someone who has suffered from chronic diseases such as diabetes. With diabetes being an incurable disease with adverse health complications, we share the experience of promoting healthy behavior and lifestyle and environmental changes (for example, access to transportation, health care, and affordable fruits and vegetables) and supporting policies that help individuals effectively manage their diabetes and prevent discrimination.

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. At present, 25.8 million Americans are living with diabetes, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Unfortunately, these individuals are at a higher risk of developing diabetes-related complications such as lower limb amputation, kidney disease, and cardiovascular disease. 

There is work that must to be done to save and improve individuals’ lives in our communities. I ask you, the Open School community, to go to the American Diabetes Association website (www.diabetes.org) right now to become a diabetes advocate. As diabetes advocates, we can support and fund the needed research to stop diabetes. Additionally, we can empower those individuals at risk for developing diabetes and those individuals diagnosed with diabetes on prevention and diabetes management through accessible, evidence-based, culturally appropriate resources, tools, and programs. 

My vision is for the Open School community to encourage discussion of the burden of diabetes in their communities and collaborate with individuals affected by diabetes to employ solutions that will improve health outcomes and quality of life. By acting together, we can make a difference for people like my grandmother and great aunts. 

Inspired by Alesha’s story? Want to learn how to tell your story? Click here to learn more about I-CAN and apply for the course.

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