Tribal Nations must band together to fight type 2 diabetes. Virta Health and I intend to lead the way.

Published on 
November 19, 2019
April 26, 2024

by Heather, 5 months on Virta

I am a member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation in Rhode Island, where my father once sat as Sachem, and I have been employed by our sister tribe, the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, for 26 years. These two tribes are neighbors to each other geographically and spiritually. Throughout my lifetime, we have been a source of support for each other, boosting one when the other was low, rallying together when either were under attack.

As a people, we have always focused on the well-being and harmony of our families and the Tribal community, enabling us to persevere through hardships. Diabetes is a serious hardship for our people; we are twice as likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes compared to the rest of America. After watching my parents and grandparents struggle with type 2 diabetes for many years, I was diagnosed with it myself 17 years ago.

My A1c was 12.4% at the time, and my doctor prescribed metformin and glipizide, which we quickly learned caused serious allergic reactions. My lips and throat would swell, so we tried other oral alternatives. I experienced similar reactions, even breaking out in hives once. Eventually, we realized that injectable insulin was the only way for me to manage diabetes, so I started on Novolog Mix 70/30.

Side effects began slowly and steadily. One year, I gained 5 pounds, which didn’t come off the following year, where I gained 7 pounds. Those 12 pounds stayed on me as I gained even more weight the next year, and so on, and so on. Over 4 years, I gained over 30 pounds that simply would not go away. Exercise was not only frustrating, but often felt dangerous. I’d go to the gym to exercise but experience a sugar crash instead, which caused me to feel like passing out. So rather than burning calories, I’d actually have to sit and have a soda or eat a sandwich, anything with some sugar in it, until my blood sugar normalized. This became a vicious cycle.

I have now gone through what feels like a whole pharmacy of medications, including metformin, glipizide, Actos, Levemir, Novolog, and Tresiba. Only the Novolog and Tresiba managed my diabetes. So you might think that finding any medications that work would be good enough, but it only takes one life-threatening incident with insulin to scare you into thinking otherwise.

One night, I mistook Tresiba, of which I take 65 units at bedtime, for Novolog, of which I normally only take 8 units with meals. This meant that I essentially gave myself 8 times the amount of fast-acting insulin than I should have. I immediately knew something was wrong. The low blood sugar caused me to feel light-headed, shaky, and anxious. I began to sweat and feel abnormally tired. I was unable to think. I was home alone at the time, so I was fortunate enough to still have enough sense about me to call 9-1-1. The dispatcher told me to put my dog in a room, unlock the front door, and find somewhere safe to wait for rescue. I only managed two out of the three, as the paramedics found me passed out on the hallway floor.

Since then, I’ve been desperate to get off of insulin. When my brother first told me that Virta was offered through my employer, Pequot Health Care, the results I saw just sounded so unreal and wonderful at the same time. Reverse diabetes? Is that even possible? I figured if I could just attain a fraction of those results, if I could just get off of my insulin, I would be happy.

A part of my decision process on whether to join Virta involved my family, as I honor and deeply respect their advice. I consulted my parents, both of whom also have diabetes, as well as my husband, and they threw all of their support behind me and said that I must try. I also considered the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and Pequot Health Care, both of whom have long been focused on improving the well-being of its members by showing them how to persevere through various struggles. This has been their mission for as long as I can remember and offering Virta seemed like a part of this mission. It would be criminal if I did not at least give Virta a shot.

I am happy to report that it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

In just 5 months, I’ve reduced by A1c by 2.7 points, from 9.9% to 7.2%. I used to have to take insulin five times a day, but that has decreased to just once per day in the evening. Even that injection has decreased from 65 units to 22, and I’m on track to continue to lower that amount. Through Pequot Health Care, I also joined a wellness program, which helped me lose 7 pounds, followed by 22 pounds lost after I joined Virta, all of which has helped the osteoarthritis in my knees.

With more energy, I feel more motivated to be active, which then helps with the weight loss and blood sugar stabilization. I can be active and play with my grandchildren these days, which would have been too painful and difficult just 5 months ago. My Virta provider and health coach form a network of support that has set me up for success. They are with me at all times to answer questions, guide me through difficulties, and continue to safely reduce my medication. These results still feel unreal to me, even though I know they are my own.

Heather with Sami Inkinen, Virta Health CEO

I was able to attend one of Virta’s events in person earlier this fall to participate in a patient panel. I also met a number of people working at Virta behind the scenes to support patients like me on our journeys. Everybody I spoke to completely owned up to their commitment to Virta’s mission: reverse diabetes in 100 million people by 2025. If they are so committed, it is only right for me to return their commitment in kind.

"Virta’s commitment to reverse diabetes in 100 million people keeps me committed in return."

My family and tribe are equally committed, if not more so. As long as I can remember, we have all stood together through difficulties. It sometimes truly takes a village to work through diabetes, and my “village” acts as a silent support system to ensure that Virta-friendly foods are always available to me, even when others aren’t eating in this way. I can’t imagine how difficult our regular summer pool parties would have been had I not been supported by my family and my community. They are just as committed to my success as I am.

As part of the Tribal Nation, we consider our elders to be our most valuable assets. Throughout time, we have believed that the only way for us to be true to who we are is to know our history. Our elders are key to preserving the traditions and the culture of our people. I want to be one of those elders, to show future generations that they, too, can overcome struggles, physical and otherwise, change their health, and ultimately improve the lives of those to come. For me, that starts with crawling on the floor with my grandchildren, which I am now able to do much easier thanks to Virta.

It’s time for our Tribal community to band together in the fight against type 2 diabetes, and I intend to help lead the way.

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” - The Dakota

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