Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System
VA Gives Veteran Tools to Manage Diabetes
Prior to receiving care at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center, Air Force Veteran Charles Hensley thought his diabetes symptoms were simply a way of life.
Hensley had headaches, knee and back pain and constant fatigue.
“You catch yourself falling asleep a lot,” said Hensley. “You’ll watch a TV show and fall asleep. You lay around after you eat. It’s almost automatic you’re going to take a nap. You’re going to be more tired, have pain and body aches. I never realized what diabetes was really doing to me, because I said ‘ah, I don’t feel that bad.’ I still thought I was healthy. Then I realized I wasn’t healthy.”
During a primary care appointment in May 2016, shortly after enrolling for VA health care, Hensley learned that his health was much worse than he realized. A hemoglobin A1C test revealed his blood glucose level was 13.6 percent, an unhealthy level that put Hensley at risk for a heart attack.
A normal A1C level is below 5.7 percent, while 5.7 to 6.4 percent is considered prediabetes. A level of 6.5 percent or above indicates diabetes.
Hensley’s VA provider assigned him to the Diabetic Group Clinic, which consists of a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Family Nurse Practitioner and Endocrinologist.
The Diabetic Group Clinic closely monitors each Veteran’s blood glucose levels, reviews medications and makes adjustments or changes as needed and also advises and educates patients on what their blood glucose target level should be and what it means.
Along with medication and treatment, Veterans are encouraged to attend small group classes where they learn the basics of diabetes and are given the opportunity to ask questions.
“The goal of our class is for our patients to be in charge of their diabetes instead of diabetes being in charge of them,” said Pam Benson, Family Nurse Practitioner and Health Promotion Disease Prevention Program Manager. “Our class enables them to learn from the knowledge and experiences of one another – people in a similar situation and provides them with a process by which they can plan changes in their decision making and behaviors.”
Prior to attending his first class, Hensley was pessimistic and wasn’t sure the class would be worth his time.
“I had just about given up,” he said. “I thought I knew about everything I needed to know. I didn’t think they were going to be able to teach me anything different. So I reluctantly agreed to it.”
Hensley said the first class was eye opening.
“I was realizing there was a lot I didn’t know, that I thought I knew,” he said. “I realized that I was going about (my diabetes management) all wrong. One of the most important things I learned was eating on time. A lot of times, I wouldn’t have my first meal until 3 o’clock in the afternoon. They showed me how to eat, when to eat, what’s bad for you and what’s good for you.”
Hensley started a food diary and tracked everything he ate, and brought the diary to the class so he could get feedback.
“I would ask questions and get the answers that I needed,” he said. “They looked (my food diary) over and said ‘that’s great, but you might want to do this.’ I went all in. My (blood glucose levels) got better and better and I started feeling better.”
Hensley also learned how important it was to exercise and he started walking three miles, three days a week. Through medication, exercise and proper nutrition, he lost more than 40 pounds and his blood glucose level dropped to 5.8.
As a result, Hensley said his health dramatically improved.
“I thought I needed a knee replacement,” he said. “I could get up out of the chair sometimes and it will want to quit on me. Now, with the weight loss, my back doesn’t bother me. My knee doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about my knee anymore.”
His improved health has also changed the 64 year-old’s outlook on retirement.
“I don’t feel as old as I felt before,” he said with a laugh. “I get around a lot better. I don’t think about my diabetes as much as I did before when I was tired.”
Hensley credits the Diabetes Group Clinic with giving him the tools to manage his diabetes.
“I told them ‘you people might not realize it, but you saved my life,’” he said. “I just feel like I’ve been given a second chance. It’s my new lifestyle now. I understand what I need to do and I understand there’s no substitute for it.”
Benson encouraged other Veterans to take advantage of the Diabetes Group Clinic.
“Without treatment, diabetes can result in high levels of glucose in your blood and serious health problems,” she said. “Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness, kidney disease and amputation. It is also associated with high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease and stroke. Diabetes does not have to be managed alone.”