This was actually supposed to be my very first blog post… one that I’ve started at stop no less than 30 times over the past 7 months. Every time I start I get so overwhelmed with emotion and before I know it, I’ve written a novel and the marketer in me knows that ‘good’ blogs aren’t too terribly long and are ‘scannable’ and easy to read… and I just haven’t been able to fit this subject into what is deemed ‘good’. So I’m breaking the rules and ignoring what I ‘should’ do. I’m hopeful you’ll read this and hopeful that maybe it’ll resonate with you, maybe it won’t. Either way, it’s selfishly therapeutic so here goes.
A lot of people know that my grandfather was really important to me. When my twin and I were just days old, my dad took us to meet him and apparently when my dad arrived at my grandpa’s house it was feeding time. So my dad threw me (not literally) and a bottle in the arms of my grandpa and he fed me. Shocker- he won my heart via my stomach and our bond was unwavering from that moment forward. He was my person, my best friend. He taught me so many things! He taught me how shoot a gun with both eyes open, he taught me how to drive, he taught me the importance of hard work and a good education, in addition to the art of ‘bullshitting’. He taught me about economics (‘Nelle, what do you think about the price of eggs in outer Mongolia?’) and how to trade stocks online, how to save and invest for my future, how to do my taxes… He taught me the best way to cure a cold is to take a shot of Wild Turkey and head to bed. He would always tell me I was beautiful when others were making fun of me for being overweight and having bucked teeth. And he would also tell me that I could do or be anything that I wanted as long as I was willing to work for it. He came and rescued me the morning my mom left my dad when I was 16… just 3 days prior to that he woke me up at 5:30 in the morning with Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16” blaring on his jukebox to wish me a happy birthday. And he gave the BEST hugs.
He grew up very poor and as the only boy in the family, started working on a farm at a very young age. He served in the Korean War where he earned a Bronze star, and when he got home he worked 3 jobs to support his family while simultaneously earning his degree in accounting. He started his own accounting firm which still stands today in Palmyra, PA. During tax season, the only way I’d get to see him was to have my parents take me to his office where I could squeeze hugs in between his client appointments. He was a work hard, play hard kind of man who loved country western movies and music, and especially John Wayne. And during the summers, we’d get to go spend a couple of weeks at a time with my grandparents (and my parents only lived 5 miles away) and we’d play in the pool, ride horses, ‘camp’ in the backyard (in a camper… in the middle of town).
Even with all that I’ve written about him so far, I feel like I’m not even scratching the surface of who my grandfather was. He had a larger than life personality and an incredibly huge heart. I know that he wasn’t perfect, but to me he was.
I also learned about Type 2 Diabetes as a young child and open heart surgery. He would sit us down and make us prick our fingers to test our blood sugar levels ever so often. Thankfully, my twin and I never had issues but we learned the numbers to know when my grandpa needed to adjust his insulin, which we also learned how to give him those shots at a young age. I learned what Diabetic Shock is, and it’s quite terrifying. We had taken a trip to Disney World with my grandparents when we were 10, and after a long day in Magic Kingdom my grandfather’s speech started to become slurred and he had difficulty walking and seeing. Once we got him back to our hotel room he started to convulse and my grandmother sent me out to find the fastest meal (a cheeseburger) to get to him to help bring his sugar levels back up. I was terrified. I thought in that moment that I lost my best friend in the happiest place on earth… thankfully it was the only time I saw him go into shock like that, but it stuck with me. He also had a 7-bypass open heart surgery in 1987… I don’t know how much you know about that, but it’s a BIG deal. He was told that he’d be lucky to live another 5 years after that surgery, and knowing how stubborn he was it really wasn’t a surprise that he lived another 24 years after that surgery. (Seriously- THAT is incredible!!!)
He would take nitroglycerin tablets for his chest pains every once in a while, but other than that we all thought he could just manage his diabetes by adjusting his insulin according to his blood sugar levels. His doctors said he could drink all the diet, sugar-free sodas he wanted to, but beyond that he really only had to avoid sugary sweets (like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, those were his fave). So instead of those sweets, he replaced them with sugar-free pudding, sugar-free fudgesicles and creamsicles… He loved hamburgers with tons of ketchup on top… he would go through CASES of those diet sodas each week, and BOXES of those popsicles a day. And all we’d do was check his blood sugar twice a day and adjust his insulin dose appropriately. He lived like this for decades.
Then, one day he started repeating himself, A LOT. He also misplaced a large sum of money, which was not characteristic of a man who knew where every penny was at any given time. He’d be driving along somewhere and forget where he was going so he’d turn around and go home. It got to the point where he didn’t ever leave the house. He would sit and ask my grandmother (and anyone else around), the same question of “what are we doing now?” (among others). My grandfather, who once was obsessed with personal hygiene, stopped bathing. And then one day, after being home for a weekend from college to visit, he completely broke down when I was leaving and told him I was heading back to Penn State because I had class the next day. In that moment, my grandfather realized that he couldn’t remember the past few years when I graduated high school and left for college. In that moment he wept in disbelief and horror and thought we were playing a cruel prank on him. The next moment it was gone as if something so traumatic had never happened. I was gutted. To see my grandfather so upset crushed me. Besides the one time he and I saw Saving Private Ryan together, I had never seen my grandfather cry before and in that moment he wept. It was a glimpse of the man (or mind) that he once was and had. My grandpa had Alzheimer’s.
In the years following his Alzheimer’s diagnosis it became more challenging to manage his diabetes (he couldn’t remember what he ate!) and his heart health continued to decline. At one point doctors said only 25% of his heart was actually functioning, and they believed that contributed to the Alzheimer’s because so much less oxygen was getting to his brain. My grandmother and Dad were his caretakers for a few years before he finally was placed in a nursing home where they made him shave his trademark silver beard. Then, one day, my grandfather asked a nurse if she could please help him out of his wheelchair and over to sit down on a couch, where he passed away peacefully. I cannot begin to tell you how I feel writing this, it’s as if it happened yesterday. It kills me that I wasn’t there with him, but I know that he’s at peace and he’s got his mind and health back. He’s probably now living out his wildest dreams of riding horses and being the cowboy he always wanted to be.
It may sound strange, but I cannot help but feel guilt about how my grandfather and his health ended up. My grandfather lived life to the fullest ALL the time, and with that came a constant state of stress that his body was in. From trying to manage his diabetes to his heart issues, his body was constantly fighting to get itself to a state of normal. And the food that his doctors said were OK for him only poisoned him more.
When I decided to check out Nutrition Therapy programs, I went to audit a class at the Nutrition Therapy Institute where I went on to earn my certification from. I took off of work and was so excited to go sit in on a Nutrients class. During that class we discussed the chemical structure of sugar and had an in-depth discussion on the effects sugar had on the body. To say what happened next was mind-blowing is an understatement. We got in to a discussion of how when we consume sugar, our bodies release insulin in an effort to normalize our blood sugar levels. In turn, when insulin is released, or bodies also release cortisol (the stress hormone) as a way to get the rest of the endocrine system to wake up and fix whatever is wrong in the body. Now, over time, this stress response will erode the coverings of the nerves in your brain (called myelin sheaths), which basically act like little conductors between the nerves that help our nerves essentially ‘connect the dots’. When those little conductors wear away, they aren’t able to connect with each other and signals in the brain aren’t able to be completed, resulting in memories issues, etc… At that point, a lightbulb went off in my head and I raised my hand and asked my professor if she felt there was a correlation between diabetes and Alzheimer’s to which she responded “Dear, we refer to Alzheimer’s as Type 3 Diabetes.”
Now, this isn’t the ONLY way that Alzheimer’s can happen to us, but it’s a big one. And when you think about the fact that over 30M Americans have some form of diabetes and over 80M Americans are pre-diabetic, this is a BIG deal. It’s a health crisis. I’ve witnessed a lot of health issues in my life, but Alzheimer’s is the most disgusting, horrifying disease and I would not wish it on anyone. It robs you of your mind, it robs caretakers of their own health and well-being, and it takes such an emotional toll on everyone in the situation that I’m still not sure if you ever are really able to recover from that.
I often think about what I could’ve done to help my grandfather. Still. What if we had known those sugar-free sodas were so toxic? What if we had insisted that he eat real food instead of all those sugar-free treats? What if we had been more vigilant about the amount of ketchup he put on his hamburgers??? What if we had realized the constant state of stress that his body was under (because it was always working in overdrive to ‘fix’ itself), that we had considered effective ways to reduce his stress? Seriously, I think about that almost every day and I feel guilt over all the things I didn’t know back then. He deserved better than what he got.
After that class, I decided to enroll to get my Certification in Nutrition Therapy. I honestly had no intention at the time to leave corporate America to do this full-time, I just thought that I’d like to help people on the side in hopes of even preventing 1 person from ending up like my grandpa. So he’s a big part of my why. If I can help bring more awareness around how importance it is to naturally be able to manage blood sugars and stress in the body, I am here for it! It’s what I choose to do to honor him.