Challenge of Living with Diabetes Hits Home for Employees
With 24 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes and another 57 million considered pre-diabetic, type 2 diabetes is a disease that touches families across the United States, including some at Bristol-Myers Squibb whose work is dedicated to fighting it.
Robert is a member of the team developing Onglyza (saxagliptin), Bristol-Myers Squibb’s treatment for type 2 diabetes, overseeing aspects of the drug’s development. Back in his home state of Missouri, Robert’s father is fighting a personal battle with diabetes as he continues a three-decade-long struggle.
A drug developer, cardiologist by training and the son of a diabetic, Robert was already well-acquainted with the many dimensions of the disease when he learned, almost by accident while experimenting with a glucose meter, that his own blood sugar was high.
For Robert, a Bristol-Myers Squibb researcher, the battle against diabetes
is a personal one.
“That was a real wakeup call for me,” Robert says. It was about eight years ago when he was in his late 40s, roughly the same age as his father when he was first diagnosed. He had seen the effects of diabetes on his father – the infections, hospitalizations, the cataracts and failing eyesight – and was determined it wouldn’t happen to him.
“I changed my lifestyle, began to exercise regularly, changed my diet and lost about 10 percent of my body weight,” Robert says. “Fortunately my blood sugar normalized after that, but just seeing what my father went through was what motivated me, and it motivates me every day in the work I do here at BMS.”
Such lifestyle changes can be quite effective in preventing or slowing the progression of type 2 diabetes, but are often extremely difficult for people to make – an example of what Robert describes as a great inertia that surrounds the disease.
“The major gap is the failure to take action,” Robert says. “Physicians often wait too long to intervene. Patients wait too long to change their lifestyle. They all think: Nothing is going to happen tomorrow. Nothing is going to happen next week. The problem with this approach is that the damage from high blood sugar accumulates over time. It’s not something you should put off.”
The essential role of individual action points to perhaps one of diabetes’ defining traits: Type 2 diabetes is a self-managed disease in which people must take responsibility for their day-to-day care by eating healthy foods, testing their blood glucose levels and taking diabetes medicines as prescribed.
America is quickly becoming a diabetic nation. A report issued in October by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, if current trends continue, the number of people with diabetes will double or even triple in the next 40 years. Today, one in 10 adult Americans has type 2 diabetes. By 2050, as many as one in three could have diabetes.
The Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s Together on Diabetes: Communities Uniting to Meet America’s Diabetes Challenge
seeks to support initiatives that will educate and empower people to take charge of their health, and work to tear down barriers to diagnosis and long-term control. Together on Diabetes – a five-year, $100 million initiative – is the nation’s largest corporate philanthropic commitment to fighting the disease and the Foundation’s first large-scale diabetes initiative.
A Further Motivation
"People are not aware of the consequences of diabetes," says Peter, a Bristol-Myers Squibb researcher.
As a researcher at Bristol-Myers Squibb, Peter, like Robert, is already playing an important role in the battle against diabetes. And, like Robert, he has also been touched personally by the disease. His father has it, as did his grandfather. His grandmother on his mother’s side died from diabetes.
“It’s been a further motivation in my work,” Peter says of his family history. “My father constantly asks me: ‘Are you guys coming out with anything?’”
Robert and Peter agree that the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s Together on Diabetes:Communities Uniting to Meet America’s Diabetes Challenge presents an important opportunity to help people access care and better manage the disease, and to focus greater national attention on an illness that, serious as it is, still often fails to ignite a sense of urgency.
“I think people are not aware still, in this day and age, of the consequences of diabetes,” Peter says. “They think it’s some kind of relatively innocuous disease.”
His father is someone who got the message. Diagnosed in his mid-40s, Peter’s father acted at once to improve his diet and increase his exercise. Today at 80, he is in his son’s words an “exemplary” diabetes patient who experienced relatively few complications, and whose exercise routine still includes two long walks each day in his home city of Toronto, Canada.
Robert’s father has had a tougher time. A painful arthritis condition curtailed his mobility and limited his exercise options, making weight control more difficult. For a while, his vision deteriorated to the point where he could no longer read, although thanks to a series of laser procedures, that situation has improved.
For Robert, the threat of losing his vision came as the most jarring possibility of getting diabetes. Besides needing it for the reading involved in his work at Bristol-Myers Squibb, he is an amateur astronomer who will drive six or seven hours from his New Jersey home to reach what are known as “dark sky sites” in remote parts of upstate New York and western Pennsylvania to better see the stars.
“It’s aesthetically beautiful and it can be a spiritual experience,” Robert says. “If lost my vision, I would lose that.”