United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Handling the Holidays with Diabetes
Woman helping a man and a woman with reading materials
Gail Serino, RN, BSN, CDE, Syracuse VA’s Certified Diabetes Educator, guides Vietnam Veteran Francis Kessler and his wife, Lois through an appropriate meal plan during the Syracuse VA’s special Diabetes evening presentation.

As the holiday season approaches with its rich and hearty meals, it can be a stressful time for diabetics. Balancing food needs and choosing to eat healthy become an important daily health care decision.

There is no cure for Type 1 diabetes, and the number of Type 2 diabetics is growing. Today the disease affects nearly 1 in 10 Americans; in 10 years, experts predict 1 in 3 Americans will be affected by the disease.

For staff at the Syracuse, N.Y. VA Medical Center, these sobering facts and the approaching holiday season encouraged staff to provide local Veterans with information to understand and combat diabetes.

“Diabetes is doable, you can still live your life but you have to make a lifestyle change, and the goal is to be comfortable with that lifestyle,” said Debbie Murphy-Cole, a registered nurse and Health Promotion/Disease Prevention Program Manager.

Murphy-Cole partnered with Gail Serino, also a registered nurse and Certified Diabetes educator, to host “Diabetes Does the Holidays,” a presentation on diabetes. They offered the event with a flu clinic to Veterans, their families and caregivers as well as giving Veterans the opportunity to sign up for VA care and My HealtheVet.

Using humor and role-playing, Murphy-Cole and Serino discussed symptoms, support, diet, exercise, and answered questions. Symptoms can include extreme tiredness, incredible thirst, uncharacteristic weight loss and frequent urination.

Type 1 diabetics need insulin, as their bodies can no longer produce the hormone. For the more common Type 2 diabetes, patients still produce insulin but the body doesn’t use it correctly. A proper diet, physical activity, and medication are needed to control it.

Treatment options

A support network is a key element of diabetes care. Besides training patients, Murphy-Cole and Serino aimed their presentation towards family members and caregivers.

Ultimately, the goal was to ensure the participants received correct information. Gail Serino recalled an attendee recently diagnosed with diabetes who said he had only been searching the Internet for information.

“Unfortunately, this guy believed he needed to avoid carbohydrates completely. He was trying to interpret the information on his own,” said Serino. “That’s just a very sad scenario, especially for what we have available.”

While the recommended diet for diabetes patients is likely a change for many patients, it’s a good choice for more than just diabetics.

“The diet that we promote for diabetes is the same for everyone — the cardiac, the cancer diet,” said Murphy-Cole.

Patients learned how their blood sugar levels and other indicators are affected by foods and environment. “I try to impress people how much power you have over the disease,” said Serino.

A Personal Passion

Besides sharing her medical expertise, Serino has another purpose behind her passion for diabetes education — she has had Type 1 diabetes for 34 years, and has had to learn to manage it successfully.

When first diagnosed, comfortably living with the disease seemed impossible to her.

“To me it was the worst thing. As a young nurse, I saw the people in the hospital who were suffering devastating complications, and I didn’t know I could be a healthy diabetic.”

Serino said she didn’t let her diagnosis define her life. Now the mother of two children, Serino is active in tennis and has climbed New York’s White Face Mountain, all with her insulin pump at her side. She said she tells patients to do what they want to do in spite of their diabetes.

“I know exactly what I’m asking people to do, I know all the pitfalls and I’ve learned from all my mistakes as well. I truly believe that it wasn’t just good luck — I have to live up to what I ask people to do.”

Attendees from the first event are now organizing a support group. There are plans to host additional diabetes presentations, and form more counseling and support groups. Serino and Murphy-Cole hope their future presentations give diabetes patients the tools to successfully manage their health and enjoy their lives.