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Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Escaping Hereditary Disease: The Fears & Practices

Ashley Nash |
April 15, 2015 | 12:16 p.m. PDT


Michael Nash, diagnosed with diabetes, in the kitchen (Ashley Nash / Neon Tommy)
Michael Nash, diagnosed with diabetes, in the kitchen (Ashley Nash / Neon Tommy)
She said it so casually: “They think your Dad has diabetes.” As a nurse of over 30 years, my mom had developed a rather emotionless way of delivering that kind of news. And it didn’t matter whether you were a patient or a family member. My brother, Dad and I were used to this kind of talk. Mom calls at least once a week to check on me. Except this time it was about my dad, the man who had been Superman all my life, who never let anything get him down, not a cold, not a disappointment. I knew he’d been sick before I was born, and that was the last and worst time. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and my mom was his nurse, soon-to-be girlfriend. Doctors said the only way to know if he was cured, that the procedure was successful, is if my mom were to get pregnant. So, on March 4, 1990, I was born in Bellflower, CA to Michael and Rosa Nash—a happy, newly married couple. 

My father recorded my very first birthday party in our small apartment on Victor Street in Los Angeles. Faces filled with food and joy filled the room. I played with the streamers that dressed my hair and the cake in front of me, all of which soon became a colorful sweet mess. Similarly, food characterized my father’s childhood. He too embraced his family culture of associating food with emotion. Celebratory dinners and sorrowful suppers, birthday parties and repasts, the occasion didn’t matter. Instead, it was an excuse to ignore calories and set your heart on “feeling full”. Fried chicken, mac’n’cheese, greens, gumbo and po’boys. He always talked about how grandma would send him to school with a thermos full of red beans and rice, the same container most eight-year-old kids used for juice or chicken noodle soup. 

This affection for flavorful foods continued throughout his young adult years. Huge success as the lead keyboardist with the 70’s funk band Rose Royce lead to fatter checks and fatter steaks with bigger portions of savory sides. On and on, the cycle went during my childhood. Growing up, I never thought anything of it that our dad packed us with sugar. He basically fed us the way a kid would. Sugar on Frosted Flakes; punch in our cereal, McDonalds Mondays and chocolate shakes on Wednesdays. Most of the memories we created together involved some sort of decadent dessert or flavorful carb that didn’t quite stick to us yet because we were so young. 

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Every trip around the block on the bike or down the street on roller-skates was followed by an equally as exciting run to the neighborhood ice-cream truck. As we grew older and became more active with the mandatory physical education courses of middle school and organized sports in high school, our eating habits didn’t change but were balanced by high activity. But this was almost the exact opposite for my dad. Finally, his eating habits were catching up to him. “Frequent peeing like a race horse, extreme thirst, and loss of appetite,” Dad told me. “That’s how I knew I was in trouble.” My dad described what lead him to visit the doctors that he avoided every year; not on his own of course. The same nurse that got him back in good health after a bout with cancer set up an appointment for him at Kaiser, where she used to work and he used to be a patient. 

Within a week, it was confirmed: Type II Diabetes. A phone call from my mom and an instant feeling of heaviness. The next day when I rushed home to see how he was taking the news, he told me my grandfather had  diabetes when my dad was only eight years old, but through “eating right, working out and making sure he got his rest”, my grandfather got his health back. Both of my dad’s parents passed due to complications of diabetes and other diseases. The fear of losing my father to what doctors have nicknamed “The Silent Killer’ was unbearable. "But you never get sick and now this…something so extreme." I couldn't quite grasp how nothing had happened before his diagnosis as a result of his eating habits. At the same time, I didn't want to face that my dad  was sick who up until now had always seemed invincible. 

This raised the question of how long it would be until the same thing happened to me. Living a life dictated by diabetes was an experience I never wanted to have. Sure, I enjoyed the weekly cheeseburger and slice of pie, but I never thought about the consequences. Now, I knew that my dad’s diagnosis could very much become a part of my own future just like the health complications and eventual deaths that both of my grandparents, my dad’s parents, faced. Clearly, I was at risk, too.  Now the stakes were clear, and so was my own path.  I thought to myself, I don’t care how much it costs, I’m getting a trainer and I am going to be more conscious about what I eat. It was no longer about moping in stores because I couldn’t fit their “size 10”, it was actually a matter of life or death in a future that seemed nearer than before. 

Food prepared by Michael Nash (Ashley Nash / Neon Tommy)
Food prepared by Michael Nash (Ashley Nash / Neon Tommy)
I spent a long afternoon sitting in bed, newly purchased apple bites and dried mangos at my side, surfing the net for answers. I began researching the dangers of diabetes, other details along with nutritional guides and what I equated to being the game changer…a trainer. I was scared to have such a big change in my life actually take control. I nervously stroked my hair repeatedly thinking of whether this would be for now or forever. A ten-question survey popped up, "Name, Age, City of residence, Height, Weight, Fitness Goal…" I filled in my answers, clicked send and a few minutes later my phone rang. "Hi! My name is Jennifer. I was notified that you;re in search of a trainer and I am interested in helping you reach your goals!" An intense feeling of excitement overwhelmed me. I was embarking on a new journey and setting an example for my dad, doing something good for myself while letting my dad know that he wasn’t alone. 

The day came for my first training session. We decided to meet Monday at 10 a.m. at a gym nearby. I was nervous to see who this mysterious trainer was and what she had in store for me. We started texting that morning to settle on a meeting place, in front of the site so that we could park in the same lot. After working out the kinks of meeting and nervousness, we made our way into the facility. As we walked pass the row of treadmills, I exhaled in relief. Somehow I sensed that she was aware of my hatred for running. Knee pain, back pain, exhaustion were all words and feelings I associated with this treacherous activity. Just as I began to settle in my comfort she uttered, “Five minute jog warm-up.” 

I was mortified, but in an effort to get what I paid for and show my best self, I obliged her request. Five minutes of barely jogging turned into shortness of breath, muscle tightening and wet hair. We headed downstairs to the weights and mats. “25 jumping jacks, 15 squats and a 30 second plank…three times.” I couldn’t even think past that moment, I just started jumping and waving my arms praying for an interruption. After reaching what I thought would be my limit, we headed outside to the quad stairs. “Run up and walk down followed by a walk up but skipping every other stair.” I was already lightheaded, dizzy and nauseous, but I stuck it out to show to myself and my new trainer that I was capable. It wasn’t long before I was making my way to the nearest receptacle. I was sure I was about to vomit. I ran to the bathroom and into the stall. My legs gave out and I plopped on the toilet. The room continued to spin for another fifteen minutes. 

After the slower spins began to take over, I got myself together and headed back outside to meet her. I’d successfully scared everyone in the gym and my trainer. We sat on the lawn chairs on the balcony near the entrance; she and I began to discuss my habits -- eating when I’m bored, eating when I’m overwhelmed – and my goal:  breaking those habits and working out to ease my stress. I knew that if my dad could change his entire regimen as much as he loved food, I could do the same. 

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My dad had always been heavyset, but athletic and handsome. So it never seemed a problem that his relationship with rich, sugary foods was a loyal one while with exercise it was an “on-again, off-again”.  Especially after fighting off cancer, a time when he was skin and bones, it was almost as if he developed a fear of seeing his ribcage again. After years of eating freely, and never getting sick, it was almost unbelievable that all of this would catch up to him.Moved: In trying to make us happy and enjoying the experience himself, my dad often overlooked the importance of a balanced diet. According to www.healthline.com, “It can be difficult to separate lifestyle risk from genetic risk. Lifestyle choices tend to run in the family. Sedentary parents tend to have sedentary children. Parents with unhealthy eating habits are likely to pass them on to the next generation.” 

While my dad was very active with us, playing in the yard and teaching us how to do our favorite physical activities, he spent the other hours packing in the sugar for daily meals and packing on the pounds as a result.   He’d become accustomed to the since of freedom he felt which he attributes to falling in love with music around the same time. “It was a natural high.” And so making the tougher decisions fell by the wayside and resulted in bad eating. But at the start of fall, on the 15th day of October, a visit to the doctor would change everything. 

In three weeks he lost 25 lbs. “My doctor told me I was in a war with sugar.” This new life-saving regimen required using a glucose meter and medicine in tablet form that would help regulate his sugar. “The pain of sticking myself four times a day is a reminder that I’m at war with sugar. I think of food as the medicine before the medicine now, my view of food has been the biggest change.” Since my enrollment in graduate school, my studies have rode front seat to my diet. All of the normally forbidden and shamed comfort foods were now what was keeping me going between the fatigue of long days and emotional roller coasters from demanding professors. My dad’s diagnosis made me hold myself accountable and to consider exercising discipline, the very thing that I seemed to lack when it came to anything outside of my academics. 

But this all came to an end after meeting with Jennifer. She explained that diet in conjunction with exercise was the key to success but that diet was ultimately more important. She began to push me a little harder every week and held me more accountable for my practices during the times we weren’t together. Her little muscled frame would pop in my head along with her soft but indicative voice. After our first meeting, she sent me a meal plan. Grains in the morning along with fruits (at a minimum). Veggies and protein throughout the day leaving about three hours between each mini-meal coming out to about six time of eating per day. While I’ve fallen off here and there, the ultimate goal and motivation are ever present. Now a transformed eater and exerciser, my dad says, “I’ve changed because I want to be well and feel well. I wake up every morning and thank God for my health and the health of my family. My hope for the future is to continue to maintain a mind set that is receptive to God. I plan to be thinner and healthier as the years go by.”  

No longer tempted by buffets and Big Macs, my dad sticks to hearty salads dressed in veggies and tuna, his favorite. Watching him prepare meals and test his blood sugar have informed my sugar intake. One sweet coffee a day and anything after that I'll take black. One small piece of dark chocolate versus a whole pastry filled with milk chocolate. This transition in my dad’s life has become apart of my exercise, diet and student habits. What’s needed and what’s desired are now two distinctly separate entities in my mind.  The discretion I’ve gained form this experience has contributed significantly to my character in ways I never thought they would. 

The next time I was in the kitchen with my dad, things were a little different. He loved talking to me about his theories whether they were on music and love or food and history. And sometimes I actually enjoyed "getting him going" so I'd ask a question or two. "How are you coping dad?" This answer, so simple yet so heavy. After a short silence, he answered," Well, I use salt and pepper if I absolutely need some flavor and otherwise I stick to the natural flavors of the food God blessed us with. Fish, peppers, sometimes fruit." He went on to describe his thankfulness and how simple life had become. This disease had not taken over his life but in his own words, "My life has been enhanced." My dad’s decisions and behavior have always informed my emotions and outlooks. He’s always been a positive force in my life and the way that he has handled something that could be so catastrophic in such a gracious way has encouraged me to trust myself. That hereditary disease and practices can stop with each generation if communication is involved. Together we can change our futures and end hereditary diabetes here.

Reach Contributor Ashley Nash here.



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