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Defeat Diabetes
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`Mr. Diabetes®' Talks the Talk and Walks the Walk

By Michael Hardy, Globe Correspondent

Posted: Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Walking down Commonwealth Avenue, on approximately the 7,500th mile of his perimeter walk around the United States, Andy ``Mr. Diabetes®" Mandell spotted his latest target.

``Hi, may I talk to you for a minute?" Mandell asked the young man walking toward him. ``Do you know anyone with diabetes?"

Charlie Collier, a 20-year-old college student, stopped to remove his ear-bud headphones. Sure, Collier said. His grandfather died of diabetes, a disease that affects the body's ability to regulate glucose, or blood sugar.

``That means you're at risk," Mandell told Collier, taking a brochure from the Defeat Diabetes Foundation, the nonprofit organization he founded to educate the public about diabetes, from his vest pouch. ``Do you have brothers or sisters?" Collier nodded. ``OK, they're at risk, too."

Mandell, 61, who grew up in Dorchester and Newton, is a diabetic himself -- he calls himself ``Mr. Diabetes®." He began his around-the-country walking tour in Madeira Beach, Fla., in 2000, making it 450 miles to Milton, Fla., near Pensacola, before diabetic retinopathy, a condition affecting the retina's small blood vessels, forced him to undergo surgery on both his eyes. Undaunted, he resumed his journey in January 2002 and has been on the road ever since.

At first, people didn't take him seriously when he told them his plan. ``I knew I had to log a few miles before I got a little respect," Mandell said. But as he crossed through Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, people started paying attention.

The handwritten sign on the 2001 Land Rover Discovery that has tailed Mandell around the country reads 7,500 miles, which represents about three quarters of his planned tour to raise awareness about diabetes, which is funded by donations to his Defeat Diabetes website (www.defeatdiabetes.org). He's walked through 25 states and has nine more to go before ending his walk in late 2007 where it began, in Madeira Beach.

Mandell, who's unmarried and has no children, spends most nights in a 37-foot Winnebago that one of his assistants drives from campsite to campsite, leap-frogging ahead of Mandell each day. Another drives the Land Rover that carries Mandell's meals and medications.

Despite injecting himself with Apidra, a fast-acting insulin medication, after every meal, Mandell estimates he has two or three insulin reactions a month, when his blood sugar drops too low. He keeps a roll of glucose tablets with him at all times.

Mandell set himself a quota of 25 conversations for each day of his tour (he estimated he's talked one-on-one to 45,000 people). He passed that mark quickly in Boston, where he started from the State House around 1 p.m. Monday, walking west along Beacon Street. He would pass through Brookline, Allston, Brighton, and Cambridge before the end of the day. He plans to visit the Barton Center for Diabetes Education in North Oxford today, then spend the next two to three weeks in Massachusetts before walking to Rhode Island.

Nearly every person Mandell stopped on the street -- including a teacher, a crew of construction workers, several bus drivers, and a Goldman Sachs banker -- had at least one diabetic in their family.

``Boston is pretty lucky because of its medical services and good grocery stores," Mandell said. ``Other areas of the country don't have those."

One middle-aged woman, emerging from a red-brick townhouse on Commonwealth Avenue, gave Mandell the cold shoulder. Mandell took it in stride but worried about the woman's health.

``My guess is that she's either diabetic or on her way to being diabetic," he said. ``She was overweight, she was smoking, she clearly doesn't get much exercise. But I don't try to push something on anyone."

Most passers by seemed sympathetic to Mandell's mission. Mandell told Collier to request the A1c hemoglobin test from his doctor to determine whether he's pre-diabetic. About 21 million people in the United States -- 7 percent of the population -- have diabetes, including 6 million undiagnosed cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

``If you find out [that you have diabetes] now," Mandell said, ``you'll save yourselves years of pain."

Mandell knows about pain. He was diagnosed with Type-2 diabetes in 1985, when he was a 40-year-old martial arts studio owner. For several years, Mandell managed his diabetes with oral medication. But one morning he awoke aching all over and unable to get out of bed. He had diabetic neuropathy, an affliction of the nervous system that made it painful for Mandell to have anything touch his skin. For years, he spent most of each day in bed. ``I thought I was going to die," he said.

Mandell eventually recovered through a rigorous program of dieting, medication, and physical therapy. Now, as executive director of Defeat Diabetes, Mandell uses his struggle to educate other diabetics. Although pessimistic about the chance of a cure, he tells people that diabetes is manageable. If a 61-year-old diabetic can spend almost five years on the road, he said, anything is possible.

``We're not helpless. We're not hopeless."

Michael Hardy can be reached at mhardy@globe.com

Source: Boston Globe

 
 
 
 
 
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