The sugar level in Keith Berryman’s blood had surged to a dangerous level.

“It hit me, and I turned delusional, crazy and incoherent,” he said. “I was rushed to the hospital. I don’t even remember the trip.”

Berryman had slipped into diabetic shock. A blood sugar level of 100 mg/dL or less is considered normal. Berryman’s was 1,200. His life was in danger. Something had to change.

“It was pretty rough,” said Berryman, 63, who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “I almost checked out, to be honest.”

Today, he’s healthy, eating right, and feeling great. Berryman is living proof that you can manage Type 2 diabetes. But his story is also a cautionary tale about what can happen when you ignore health warning signs and doctors’ recommendations to make lifestyle changes.

Diabetes is widespread

If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use insulin as well as it should. When there isn’t enough insulin or cells stop responding to insulin, too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream. Over time, that can cause serious health problems, such as poor wound healing, increased risk of infection, heart disease, stroke, blindness, and kidney disease.

More than 34 million Americans have diabetes (about 1 in 10), and about 90% of them, like Berryman, have Type 2 diabetes.  Certain minority groups, including Black Americans and Latinos, are also at greater risk than whites because of genetics and other factors. Risk also increases with age.  A quarter of people over the age of 65 have diabetes.

Another 88 million – that’s 1 in 3 Americans – are prediabetic, meaning their blood sugar levels are less abnormal, but still at risk for diabetes.

There isn’t a cure for diabetes, but losing weight, improving dietary habits, and being active can help. That’s the path that Berryman chose, and where he remains.

How he got there

In 2010, Berryman was working as a pharmacy technician. He began having problems with his vision and memory, common for diabetes patients.

“Being stubborn, I was having some issues with it, but didn’t really realize what was going on,” Berryman said. The diabetic shock resulted in a weeklong hospital stay, which Berryman said terrified him. But, he knew what landed him there.

“I was consuming too much sugar, too many sweets,” he said. “I was overweight.”

Rolih_Catherine_Head_Web
Dr. Catherine Rolih

After being diagnosed with diabetes, Berryman had to self-administer insulin shots into his stomach twice each day. He also had to do finger pricks several times daily to monitor his blood-sugar level. Under the guidance of Dr. Catherine Rolih, an endocrinologist with Novant Health Forsyth Endocrine Consultants - Highland Oaks, his health was improving over a period of several months.

Yet the whisper of carbohydrates and sugary foods rang in Berryman’s ears.

“As soon as my health started improving, I went back to cookies, cakes, pies and two-liter sodas; the whole nine yards,” he said. “Sweet is like a pacifier for most folks. Something’s going wrong, you get yourself something sweet and it puts you in a mellow state of mind. It’s extremely hard to get out of that cycle, but a time comes when you have to get out of it.”

Berryman’s backslide was evident in A1C tests, which revealed too much sugar had crept back into his system.

“My dear friend Dr. Rolih,” he said, laughing. “She told me `If you’re going to continue, we’ll have to break out the insulin injections again.’ That was very motivational to me. I didn’t want any more needles. Dr. Rolih saved my life. I’d gone off the deep end and she put things back into perspective for me. For that, I’ll forever be grateful.”

How he turned his health around

Berryman revamped his lifestyle, which isn’t an easy task. He’s lost more than 60 pounds in the past few years, and plans to drop 10 more. He doesn’t have any sugary items in the house. He drinks coffee black. He’ll dabble in apple juice. His go-to beverage is water with lemon.

He eats a lot of greens (“I’m king of the salads now”), and his new dressing of choice is apple cider vinegar. He eats a lot of poultry and seafood, and it’s either grilled or sauteed. He avoids red meat, and only occasionally will have a slice of dark pumpernickel bread.

“Every now and then, I’ll have a piece of chocolate,” Berryman said. “And maybe once a month, I’ll treat myself to something.”

He exercised three times a week at a nearby gym, until the coronavirus pandemic closed it. His large yard, filled with trees, keeps him busy throughout the year.

“I don’t know why they call them leaves, they should just call them work,” Berryman said, laughing. Gardening, tree trimming and deck repai temporarily replaced his gym routine. But the gym re-opened in late June, and Berryman returned. He also stays active as a part-time mailman, and tinkers on a hot rod in his garage. He’s a drummer and is dedicated to refining his jazz touch.

“It’s great to be me right now because I put in work,” he said. “It’s hard. You’ve just got to take that first step, start adjusting and then re-adjusting”

Berryman’s biggest fear?

“I don’t want to slip, and fall back into yum-yum and deliciousness,” he said. “There’s so much delicious out there. You drive up to a stoplight and it’s all around you. You’ve just got to get your head in the right place, and want it. If I can do this, anyone can do it. Keep everything in context, and the sky is the limit.”

How you can manage diabetes

Rolih said Type 2 diabetes is greatly affected by a patient’s lifestyle. Her main suggestions for improvement:

  1. Controlling your weight. Even dropping 10-15 pounds can have a positive effect.  
  2. Limit carbohydrate consumption. Diabetes is linked to sugary foods, but starchy foods like bread, pasta and potatoes should be limited  too.

“A lot of those are comfort foods in our society,” Rolih said. “Dietary management has been a challenge during COVID-19 for many people because of stress eating.”

 She also recommends avoiding drinks that contain sugar such as sodas, juice drinks, coffee drinks and sweetened tea.

  1. Physical activity. Rolih recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise weekly, as per American Diabetes Association guidelines. What is ‘moderate?’ “You raise your heartrate 50%, but are still able to have a conversation with someone,” Rolih said.  She also suggested a low-and-slow approach to exercise, to avoid trying to do too much early on.
  2. Set attainable goals for diet and exercise. Write down your goals. Hold yourself accountable.

“Try not to do everything all at once,” Rolih said. “Any change is a good change, and should be celebrated.”

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