NYC diabetes program offers personalized treatment with heart

Ruby Vargas, 59, is one of the many U.S. Latinos living with Type 2 Diabetes.

She has been living with the disease for the last 12 years; the disease took the lives of her mother and brother back home in the Dominican Republic.

For years she kept on, unchecked and clueless as to how to take control of her disease until she joined the Win for Diabetes program at her local healthcare clinic.

“It’s so important [to check your sugar], I don’t even know how to describe it but diabetes is so dangerous, it’s a silent killer,” says Vargas, in her native Spanish. “So many times I’m just sitting down and thinking to myself ‘Oh, I feel so great today,’ but then I check my sugar and it’s through the roof.”

The program was launched in early 2012 by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and operates out of the hospital’s Washington Heights Family Health Center in Washington Heights — just a few blocks from Vargas’s home.

After a 2004 study conducted by the NYC Department of Mental Health and Hygiene found that 19,000 people in the Washington Heights-Inwood communities were living with Type 2 Diabetes, the hospital reached out to community-based organizations to partner up and create a program to fight diabetes in the neighborhood.

Historically, low-income residents of New York City have been found to be twice as likely as others to have diabetes, 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized for complications associated with it and 2.3 times likelier to die from its complications.

Clinical director Crystal Cartwright says the key to the program’s success is developing life-long relationships with participants. At no extra cost to those selected to participate, the program has also taken on numerous patients without insurance.

“A piece of caring for a patient is also knowing the person that you’re caring for, so again, I think this program recognizes that in a way that we don’t always do so in a medical system; it recognizes that patients are people,” Cartwright says.

Powered by an all-mighty core group of community health workers in charge of giving participants one-on-one guidance and support, this group of nine women is the backbone of the year-long program.  Their main objective: Providing patients with all-around support for success. Patients are given home visits, weekly phone calls, support during doctor check-ups, educational information and most importantly, provided links to local social service providers that help meet their needs. All of this, completely free.

Miriam Coss is in charge of Vargas and in just a couple of months, they’ve become great friends; they’re like family, she says.

“I’ve totally seen a different side of her now, I think she’s more jolly, much more alive,” says Coss.

Her daughter, Karina Jimenez, has seen the changes too. Vargas says Karina is her inspiration for getting the disease under control.

Once a month, participants are also exposed to educational workshops, which are also open to the community. These workshops are led by Cartwright, along with Carmen Cruz, who manages the community healthcare workers, as well as all nine community health workers in the flesh.

A big fan of the meet-up, Vargas is known for bringing along large groups of friends to every class. Not surprisingly, all Latino and all diabetic, as well.

“This is an epidemic,” she says. “It’s always seven or eight of us, so I hope they never [get] rid of [the program]. How could we possibly get better if no one is invested in teaching us how to do better?”

Before joining the program, Vargas says her biggest drawbacks were diet and exercise, both of which she’s completely revamped. Her favorite foods now include fresh spinach, lentils, brown rice and chicken breast – items she says she rarely ate growing up.

But it’s hard to lead a healthy lifestyle without access to good food, she says. So back home, the hard work continues as she cooks for herself and her family.

“I’m so thankful and so happy with the program,” says Vargas. “Truth is I don’t want to have the burden of leaving Karina behind, on her own, so I have to do what it takes to make sure I am able to stick around as long as possible.”

Vargas has made significant strides, successfully lowering her blood sugar a complete three point five points from 10.9 to 7.4 since January 2012.  Her goal is to reach 7, which she says she’ll reach in no time.

A graduation for the program’s first class of 122 is scheduled to take place this fall on September 16th.

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