Some people with diabetes are more likely to lose a limb than people involved in severe traffic accidents; and diabetics can die as quickly as cancer patients who are given less than five years to live.
These facts were some of the shock treatment truths that American foot and ankle surgeon Dr Steven Wells delivered to Barbadians in an effort to bring home the perils and horrible aspects of diabetes, at the start of the first Oscar Jordan Symposium last night.
“A person can be run over by a train, and you expect maybe they might lose their foot, but in diabetes you are losing more feet to sugar probably than you are in being hit by a train,” Wells told the audience that packed the Queen’s Park Steel Shed.
He went on to make a comparison between diabetics and cancer patients with no chance of recovery, and who are expected to die in approximately five years.
“People who have ulcers and amputations, ischemic ulcers, and poor circulation die after five years the same way. Diabetes, if you don’t control it, can literally shorten your life.”
The four-day inaugural symposium is being held in honour of the life and work of the late Dr Oscar Jordan, endocrinologist and co-founder of the Barbados Diabetes Foundation and the Maria Holder Diabetes Centre for the Caribbean.
Other presenters on the first night were Diabetes Centre diabetologist Dr Diane Brathwaite; Diabetes Centre nurse Kevamae Sobers; Queen Elizabeth Hospital (QEH) nurse Veronica Webster; and QEH consultant surgeon Dr Margaret O’Shea.
“In Barbados, this [diabetes] is being passed from generation to generation, and it’s killing your kids like you would not believe,” said Dr Wells.
He pointed to obesity as the primary culprit in people developing diabetes.
The surgeon, who has a large number of Barbadian diabetic patients, touched on the matter of obesity against the backdrop of a recent Pan-American Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization combined report naming Barbados as the country with the highest obesity rate in the Caribbean and Latin America.
“Obesity is contributing to diabetes,” he said, adding that this link is so strong that it has spawned a new term – diabesity. “Diabetes and obesity now are teaming up.”
“Obesity leads to diabetes, to nerve damage, to micro-trauma, and the end result is Charcot [foot],” he added, explaining that the condition has to do with diabetes-caused erosion of the bones.
“Diabetes will cause pieces of your bone to wither away,” he said. “We have a lot of patients in Barbados who have Charcot foot. That’s when the bones of your foot start to drop out the bottom. They literally start to disintegrate and come out the bottom of your foot.”
Aided by a number of charts displayed on a screen, Wells moved on from Charcot foot to a number of gruesome states of body deterioration that are likely to affect many people in Barbados, a country where one in five persons has diabetes.
“Diabetes affects your skin,” he said, and explained that while a person without diabetes routinely responds to dry skin by applying moisturizing cream, life is different for the diabetic.
“When you have diabetes, dryness can become deadly.”
According to Dr Wells, in instances of skin dryness, especially under the foot, what appear to be simply cracks on the skin are fissures going deep into the body.
“That crack in the skin goes all the way down, so having dry skin as a diabetic can be serious,” he warned. He added that it was like an open sore that leads to an ulcer, and many diabetic ulcers don’t heal and can lead to infection that spreads.
“Diabetes will cause your skin to become thicker, thickening and darkening around your neck. This thickening can get worse over time and if you are not careful, it could disfigure you.”
Dr Wells continued that in addition to those problems, diabetes causes damage to the brain and sexual problems in both men and women.
“Diabetes is preventable; you have the power to prevent it. So why don’t we prevent this before we get to the cure?” Wells pleadingly asked his audience.