by Elizabeth Lunt
Annette Gordon says that for nearly twenty years, she managed her diabetes the same way many Americans do: “I ignored it,” she explains, with a warm, rich chuckle that evokes her native Trinidad. “Big mistake.”
Neglecting her diabetes cost Annette her vision and her teeth (see related story). Now 61, she wants to make sure that others don’t make the same mistake. “The doctors kept trying to talk to me about the diabetes, but I felt fine,” she says. “I thought there couldn’t be anything really wrong with me.” Annette chuckles again. “I’m going to shout it from the housetop,” she adds, “what a fool I was!”
Her first experience with diabetes was as a young pregnant woman. Her doctor told her she had gestational diabetes—a form of diabetes that is the result of pregnancy hormones. It usually goes away once the baby is delivered, but her doctor told her she should watch out because women with gestational diabetes are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes later. Annette ignored him. She felt fine, and she had young children to care for.
Years later, during a routine exam, Annette discovered that the first doctor’s prediction had come true. She had type 2, and her new doctor warned her to manage it. She ignored him, too. Again, she felt fine. One more doctor in her native Trinidad even told her he would not clear her for employment—a condition of getting a job there—until she dealt with it.
She says she doesn’t understand what she was thinking then, but notes that she was consumed with taking care of four children and didn’t have much money. “Poverty is a sad thing. You just want to do the best you can do for your children, not being aware that you need help for yourself” she offers, still trying to see how she could have ignored her diabetes for so long. She focused on getting her children to the point of self-sufficiency and didn’t feel sick anyway.
Finally, when she was 45, she noticed problems with her eyes and her teeth and jaw began to ache. She never connected either ailment with the diabetes. By then she was living in the U.S., and she went to a new doctor. He explained to her that even though she couldn’t feel her diabetes, it was harming her. Her uncontrolled blood sugar was damaging her eyes and her gums, and causing her teeth to loosen. She took her medicine—“when I remembered,” she says —but neglected her diet and did not exercise. Her vision and dental problems got worse, but “everything happened gradually” and she didn’t worry about her health.
Eventually, her eye problems turned into legal blindness. The doctor told her it was diabetic retinopathy. “I didn’t even want to go out on my sun porch,” she recalls. She was terrified and felt trapped in the house. “I thought my life was over,” Annette says with a sigh. “I really did.”
But Annette’s life was far from over. Through the National Federation
of the Blind (NFB), her daughter found a skills program at Blind Industries
and Services of Maryland (BISM). At first, Annette wasn’t interested.
When her daughter took her to the first
interview for the program, she “was mentally kicking and screaming,” she says with a laugh.
She joined the skills program to get out of the house, but she refused to carry the white cane because then everyone would see that she was blind. “I was in denial…even though I was falling down and risking my life every time I crossed the street,” she confesses now.
Gradually Annette realized that she had a lot in common with people in the program, and she was inspired by her blind instructors. “It gave me back a lot of courage,” she recalls. “Here were all these people just like me going places, involved in things.” She became determined.
She decided to take on the more advanced life-skills training class, a rigorous eight month program spent learning Braille, mobility, and kitchen skills, among others. She resolved to “work my darndest, and I did.” In the middle of the program, she had to leave and go to Trinidad for three months to care for her ill mother and to help her daughter, who was having her first baby.
In Trinidad, she was amazed at how much she could do. “You do not lose your natural instincts,” she says. “The baby didn’t know I was blind.” She managed to cook and care for her mother and her newborn grandson, and returned to the U.S. to complete her program. “You have to cook a meal for 20 to 30 people to graduate and I made dinner for 33” she recalls proudly.
Now Annette is working at BISM where she teaches Braille to seniors and makes home visits to help them cope with their blindness. She says she knows how they feel, since she was there herself; people get depressed when they have to change their lives and learn new ways without vision.
But Annette tells them that her own blindness also brought blessings and “opened up a bigger world for me,” she says. She has done things as a blind person that she never expected to do even when she had 20/20 vision. She learned to use a computer during her life skills course and now, she says, “I use it for everything!” Overcoming her fear and learning so much has given her a new confidence. She describes herself as “more assertive” and sure that she can handle any challenge. “No more sniveling and crying for me!” she exclaims proudly.
“I played around with diabetes for years and ignored it” Annette admits, but she is now serious about her self-management and says she is “fighting tooth and nail.” She takes her medicine and watches her blood sugar and diet. What’s really working, she reports, is exercise. Her vision loss hasn’t slowed her down; she walks as much as possible and says that she gets “really nice numbers” after a stint on the stationary bicycle.
Annette isn’t just active when she’s exercising—she was recently selected to be the NFB spokesperson in a national education campaign about the complications of diabetes (see related story). She is proud that she is helping to get the word out. “I’m loud” she jokes, “When people hear me, they know it’s Annette!” She’s putting her voice to good use at NFB advocacy and outreach events as well, and loves being a part of the organization. “I’ve never had so much fun in my life since I’ve been involved with the NFB and BISM” she says. And they’re thrilled to have her, too.
Additional reporting for this article was contributed by Gail Brashers-Krug