City of Houston employees share stories of struggle, perseverance, and how they remain optimistic about living well despite their disease

Diabetes can lead to a lifetime of chronic and progressive ailments — coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, nerve damage, possibly even blindness or amputations, and more.

Irene Torres’ diabetes contributed to her stage 4 kidney disease and the amputation of her left leg below the knee. But a commitment to diet and lifestyle changes has forged a positive outlook for a better future.

For Kris Blanco, diabetes runs in her family, and even though she feels she should have seen this coming, she takes it in her hands to manage and control her glucose levels to be off her medicines for good.

Vera Chamié Alves de Souza has to balance stress and hard work so her A1C levels don’t spike. Her faith and staying mentally balanced are essential to the discipline of managing her Type 1 diabetes.

Three stories of resiliency and embracing change illustrate how forming new lifestyle habits can lead to living well despite disease.

Irene Torres’ journey was dark, but she’s “here to tell it all”

Irene Torres image
 Photos courtesy of Irene Torres

Irene Torres has been a Houston Public Works employee for 32 years working as an administrative assistant for the Capital Projects Division. She was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes over 20 years ago and took insulin every day since then — until earlier this year.

Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas to help the body use sugar for energy. When the pancreas doesn't work as it should, the insulin it makes or releases may not be enough to control blood sugar levels, resulting in diabetes. Some Type 2 diabetes treatments are a combination of diet, exercise, and oral medication, but in some cases — or over time — people may need to add insulin injections to their treatment.

Torres remembers being upset and feeling depressed when she learned of her condition. She describes diabetes as “a very hard condition to live with. It requires constant monitoring, life adjustments, and life changes. It can be a death sentence as well.”

According to the American Diabetes Association and the National Institute of Health, diabetes is not only a disability by itself, but it is also one of the leading causes of other physical disabilities in adults — including mobility loss, reduced instrumental activities of daily living, and work disability.

Torres is a perfect example of that nexus between diabetes and other conditions. Her diabetes brought other health complications, forcing her to make tough decisions that changed her way of living. Still, she would not let diabetes stop her from enjoying life and continued to be physically active. However, in March 2015 Torres participated in a mud run during which she had an accident resulting a severely broken left ankle.

The tibia-fibula external fracture exposed her ankle to contamination from the muddy conditions. Complications included a fungal infection and led to her being hospitalized for more than a month. She underwent five surgical procedures and wore a halo and screws around her ankle. But that wasn’t enough to save her leg. The combination of the infection spreading and her diabetes, which was out of control at the time, required the amputation of her left leg below the knee. Then she lost three liters of blood due to a hemorrhage after the amputation and needed a blood transfusion.

“It was a very dark and hard journey, and yet I’m here to tell it all,” Torres said. 

At 56 years old, Torres is not defeated by diabetes. She sees her biggest challenge as adapting to a new lifestyle prioritizing her diet, exercise, and keeping up with medication. With the support and guidance of her assigned nurse, as part of the Cigna Healthcare diabetes program, she is motivated and determined to keep her health at best.

Torres was recently diagnosed with stage 4 kidney disease as a complication from diabetes, but she focused on keeping a healthy diet to maintain her kidney function. She later decided to proceed with bariatric surgery to qualify for a transplant and lost 50 pounds in two and a half months.

“Diabetes has been a major contributor to all my decremental health situations up to now, but I still move forward through faith and hope,” Torres said.

Kris Blanco takes things one step at a time

Feeling upset may be the most natural reaction after receiving a diabetes diagnosis. Such news can be shocking and eventually bring a sense of guilt — questioning past decisions, taking the blame, or feeling lost and focusing only on the negative outcomes.

Kris Blanco wasn’t a stranger to Type 2 diabetes when she was diagnosed with the disease. Both her mother and grandmother had suffered from it and were prescribed insulin to control it. At first she was shocked. Then she was upset with herself for not paying enough attention to her health.

04 Kris Blanco
 Photos courtesy of Kris Blanco

"I wish that I had learned or known how to manage or control it since it was hereditary and common in Hispanics," she said.

People with a family health history of Type 2 diabetes are more likely to be prediabetic and eventually develop diabetes. Family history is only one important factor in health. Environmental factors can also be a determinant. Families often develop, adopt and pass through generations different habits, including lifestyle, eating, exercising and other personal choices.

After a rollercoaster of emotions, Blanco decided to take one step at a time by taking advantage of all the health literacy resources at her disposal and managing her A1C levels with lifestyle improvements. Making use of her employee benefits as a senior paralegal at the General Ligation Section for the City of Houston Legal Department, she signed up for the wellness program and joined virtual wellness classes dedicated to diabetes prevention, weight loss and hypertension prevention. She also joined the Wellness team’s MoveSpring monthly challenges and started working out on her lunch break at the new wellness center at City Hall.

"It's hereditary, but at the end of the day it is my job to try to maintain it successfully with my meds, diet and exercise," she said.

05 Kris Blanco

Blanco’s husband is also diabetic and together they support and motivate each other daily to keep it under control.

"My goal is to be able to have my blood glucose within normal range by keeping my weight under control, eating a healthy diet, exercising, and eventually being off my diabetes medication. One step at a time," she said.

Vera Chamié Alves de Souza’s faith feeds her motivation

06 Vera Chamie
Photos courtesy of Vera Chamié

Being in a good mental state is one of the keys to staying healthy and preventing or controlling serious health conditions. Every aspect of life influences well-being.

When Vera Chamié Alves de Souza was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes back in 2002, she was in denial at first but later found shelter and motivation in religious faith, as well as staying positive.

“I see my role in life as being and giving 100% of myself to nourish positive relationships and bring light at home, work environment, and everywhere,” she said.

Chamié is aware that to be there 100% for her loved ones, she must be there 100% for herself first, particularly when dealing with diabetes. That requires dedication and special attention to managing diet, rest, exercise and stress levels.

She finds it more challenging to keep her A1C levels in check when she’s tired. Fatigue is a common symptom of diabetes — whether it is from stress, hard work, or lack of sleep. It happens when the blood glucose levels are high and the body doesn’t process glucose as energy. Consequently, having a team of health providers has been vitally helpful. Also, changing her diet every so often and introducing new activities to build new habits has helped.

Chamié is a firm believer that every day brings new beginnings and everything in life is a blessing. Even challenging moments should be taken as opportunities to excel and succeed.

“The way one faces it makes a huge difference,” she said.

When new habits mean restrictions, Chamié said it may feel like hitting a wall. But time and applying healthy habits consistently will help adapt better and eventually find joy in learning new ways of living, she said.

She added that seeking support, professional advice, or learning from other’s experiences are important tools when learning how to navigate a disease such as diabetes.

The path forward with illness can determine quality of life

07 Types of diabetes
Is Diabetes Genetic? If you or someone in your family has diabetes, you might be wondering if it is genetic.

Credit: Verywell / Ellen Lindner

New or unforeseen challenges can make familiar things — like daily routines that we take for granted — significantly more difficult.

Diabetes has done that to hundreds of millions of people globally. Medical experts say that habits can create opposite outcomes when it comes to diabetes: bad habits contribute to the deleterious effects of the disease, while developing healthy habits can help manage diabetes and allow people to live well for many years.

The truth is that we are constantly building new habits without even knowing it, like scrolling through social media before we go to sleep or having a sweet treat before bed. However, we don’t realize these actions turn into habits until a need for change arises. That’s when things get hard and especially challenging when our health is on the line.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune reaction — where the body attacks itself by mistake — that happens when the pancreas does not make insulin because the body's immune system is attacking the islet cells that make insulin in the pancreas. This can happen for months or even years before symptoms appear.

Type 2 diabetes is different in that the pancreas makes less insulin than it used to. It is known as a silent disease because in early stages symptoms seem insignificant. It isn’t until more advanced stages that symptoms persist and increase, bringing complications and forcing people with this diagnosis to make long-term changes in their regular habits, including diet, sleep, exercise and avoiding stress. In some cases, this requires changes in whole routines.

There are many approaches to facing new challenges – and managing a disease is no different. Even though news of a disease like diabetes can be devastating, for some it may also be a second chance or an opportunity to be more conscious about healthy habits and life in general.