I had the pleasure of speaking with Tony-award winning actor and Broadway star, Ben Vereen about his recent diagnosis of diabetes. Ben has had an extremely accomplished career, including recent guest appearances on NBC’s Law and Order, and ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. He’ll appear in an upcoming Fox feature with Patti Labelle called, “Mama, I Want To Sing” so don’t miss it.
To listen to a podcast of our interview, please click here.
Dr. Val: Ben, how exactly were you first diagnosed with diabetes?
Vereen: Unfortunately, prior to my diagnosis I didn’t recognize the signs of diabetes and didn’t understand what was causing my symptoms. I had dry mouth, frequent urination, severe thirst, sugar cravings and fainting episodes and didn’t realize they were all caused by diabetes. One day my daughter saw me pass out and she took me to the hospital. It didn’t take them long to figure out that my blood sugar was out of control. They kept me overnight and told me the next day that I had diabetes. I was shocked because I thought I was exercising regularly and eating well – it never occurred to me that I could have diabetes.
Looking back I realize that I had been told once (about 8 years ago) that I had “a touch of diabetes” but I thought it had gone away because of my good eating habits and exercise. I wish I had thought to follow up on that diagnosis and ask my primary care physician to check my blood sugar regularly.
Dr. Val: Does diabetes run in your family?
Vereen: Yes it does, but I wasn’t that close with my family so I didn’t learn what I could have about diabetes. When I was growing up, insulin syringes were very large – almost indistinguishable from heroin needles. So there was a real stigma associated with diabetes, as well as a fear factor related to having to stick yourself with big needles all the time.
October 21 was “Take The Stage For Diabetes Awareness” Day in Los Angeles. I’d like to have that awareness carry through for the entire year and even a lifetime. People need to know how to recognize the symptoms of diabetes, and learn how to live a good life with it.
Dr. Val: Did you begin your diabetes treatment with oral medications?
Vereen: No, they had to hit me hard with insulin from the beginning. I take insulin at night and check my sugar several times a day. I also modified my diet to help manage my diabetes. I remember going to Whole Foods, reading every food label – it was as if I were in a library. I learned about what I could and couldn’t eat that way.
Dr. Val: What support do you receive for your diabetes?
Vereen: I’ve learned that there’s an amazing family of support for people with diabetes. For example, when I first announced that I had diabetes I was working at a show in Las Vegas. I was feeling a little bit anxious about controlling my sugar during the show, when a stage hand approached me and said that he had diabetes as well. He gave me some tips for managing my blood sugar and told me that he’d watch out for me and keep some juice on hand for me in case I felt light-headed. It was so wonderful to see how comfortable he was in talking to me about diabetes. We’ve come a long way – and we can talk about our disease proudly. I’m not the least bit shy about checking my blood sugar in public if necessary.
Dr. Val: Do you have any advice for people at risk for diabetes but who haven’t yet been diagnosed?
Vereen: Yes. People should ask their doctors to check a fasting blood sugar at their yearly check up. Twenty-four million people in America are living with diabetes and every 21 seconds another person is diagnosed with it. About 13% of those living with diabetes are African Americans.
Dr. Val: How has diabetes changed your life, Ben?
Vereen: Once you’re aware that you have diabetes, everything is much easier. When you’re unaware, you’re stumbling in the dark. I feel that the universe has given me a gift – it’s saying, ‘here I’ve given you this temple, now take care of it.’ The charge was to take care of the garden, and we are the garden.
Life is good. Do not think that diabetes is a sentence – it’s a gift that we should use to help others become aware of how to heal. In fact, I created a website to tell others about my story. It’s called “bensdiabetesstory.com”
You can listen to a podcast of this interview here.