S. Epatha Merkerson

For nearly 30 years, S. Epatha Merkerson has charmed audiences with her electric performances on television, film and on stage. Merkerson—best known as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in Law & Order, a role that she played for played for nearly 17 years—has received a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Obie Award and four NAACP Image Awards for her stellar work. But with all of her success in acting, what people may not know is that Merkerson is living with type 2 diabetes.

The award-winning actress is using her diagnosis to bring awareness to type 2 diabetes and urge the 26 other million Americans living with the disease to find out what their A1C is, a simple blood that tracks a person’s blood sugar over a three-month period. Merkerson has teamed up with Merck to encourage those with type 2 diabetes to take America’s Diabetes Challenge.

While in Washington, D.C. for an American Diabetes Association Empowerment event, Merkerson spoke with emPower magazine Founder/Publisher DeShuna Spencer about why she decided to partner with Merck and how she’s thriving with her diabetes.

DeShuna Spencer: How did you first learn that you were diabetic?

[quote align=’right’]A1C is a simple blood test that gives an estimate of average blood sugar over the past 2 to 3 months.[/quote]

S. Epatha Merkerson: The odd thing is that I was here in Washington, D.C. There was a health fair at the convention center. I was the celebrity for the event. We talked about exercising and being healthy. Howard University had some tables set up for people to get tested for various illnesses. With the cameras on, they took my blood sugar. When the cameras turned off, the doctor came over and said would I mind coming to the back. I said, “No, not at all.” I was thinking he might want a photograph or an autograph. But he said, “You know your blood sugar was very high and I think you need to talk with your doctor.” Indeed, I met with my doctor and found out I had type 2 diabetes. I didn’t recognize the symptoms. As having a family history of it, I probably should’ve been more cognizant. That’s how I found out.

S. Epatha Merkerson partnered with Merck to launch America's Diabetes Challenge. (Photo credit: Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Merck)
S. Epatha Merkerson partnered with Merck to launch America’s Diabetes Challenge. (Photo credit: Jason DeCrow/AP Images for Merck)

DeShuna: I’m sure that was very shocking for you to find out that you have diabetes after doing a celebrity appearance. But thankfully, you found out when you did. I’ve heard so many horror stories of people passing out behind the wheel and waking up in the hospital to find out they had a diabetic crisis. Looking back on it, do you now recognize the warning signs?

S. Epatha: Yes, exactly. I have learned that it affects people differently. I have a brother who is two years older than I am and he is suffering pretty badly from the affects of type 2 diabetes. One of the things that he and I have been discussing is the fact that it is a manageable disease. What we’re trying to do with this partnership with Merck is really grassroots education. If you know your A1C number, that allows your doctor or your health care provider to help you in managing your diabetes. The A1C is a simple blood test. It measures your blood sugar level for a two to three month period. When you take your blood sugar everyday, you know what’s happening with your blood sugar at that very moment, but knowing your A1C allows you and your doctor to set up an individualized treatment plan for you.

DeShuna: So, treatment should be different for everyone?

S. Epatha: Yes, it should be. So what works for me might not work for someone else. What I learned is that there are 26 million people in this country with diabetes. Five million of those people are African American and nearly half of us don’t know what are A1C number is, which means they’re not in a treatment program. By knowing that number, you will have a plan that will help you with diet, your exercise regimen, and medication—if that’s what you need. We’re trying to get people to pledge and know their A1C so they can work with their doctors to come up with a plan and set a goal to retain that A1C number. We’ve found that nearly half the people with diabetes don’t even know what A1C is.

DeShuna: I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of A1C until I began doing research for this article. I don’t have diabetes, but I can image for those who do have it and not know, that’s scary.

S. Epatha: I know. The interesting thing is having conversations with my doctors about my A1C. He was saying that my A1C should be below seven percent and I wasn’t paying attention. Then I had to tell myself, “Come on Epatha, this is serious.” My dad died from complications from diabetes when I was 30. I will be 62 in November. It’s time to pay attention. So when Merck asked me to be a part of this campaign, it was a no-brainer. Sometimes you need to put a face to things and people know that you’re struggling as well.

[quote align=’right’]The American Diabetes Association’s guidelines recommend many people with diabetes have an A1C of less than 7 percent to help reduce the risk of complications.[/quote]

DeShuna: I think what you mentioned earlier is critical on how management is so important if people pay attention to their blood sugar, eat healthy and exercise. But it’s not that easy for everyone. Why do you think that is?

S. Epatha: It’s just difficult because type 2 diabetes is adult onset so you’ve already created habits for yourself and it’s changing habits as you get older, which is very difficult. I’d be the first to tell you that sometimes I get off track, but I know what I need to do. People know me from Law & Order and they’ll see that I’ve lost quite a bit of weight since doing the show. That was the biggest part for me—it was my intake. I was eating like a 12-year-old. I’ve changed my habits. I want to tell folks not to get discouraged, but to try. It is something that’s, especially difficult in our community; it’s rampant. It is the fourth leading cause of death in our community. It’s important that we really start talking about this. I just remember hearing people in my family, “Yeah, she got a touch of sugar.” So, you’re afraid you’re going to lose your sight or lose your leg, but if you manage it, you can live a better life.

DeShuna: What’s your current regimen to manage the disease?

S. Epatha: I walk a lot. Finding some form of exercise that I could commit to was critical. That was the biggest thing for me in changing my habits. In New York, it’s so easy to just walk the streets. Three or four days a week I do serious power walking. I don’t get on the subway. I don’t get on the bus. I won’t drive. I’ll walk somewhere if it’s a mile or two. With eating, for me it was moving away from carbs like French fries and bread.

DeShuna: I never realized that eating a lot of carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes.

S. Epatha: Those things turn to sugar. Also, my doctor prescribed medication for me. That has changed over the years. It’s a struggle for me. Partnering with Merck, I’m letting people know that I’m a person who has a family history [of the disease], who understood what it could do, and I still struggle. It’s time for us to look within our community and say there’s a better way.

DeShuna: And go to the doctor, right? If you would not have gotten tested while doing a celebrity appearance in DC, who knows how you would’ve found out?

[quote align=’right’]Three or four days a week I do serious power walking. I don’t get on the subway. I don’t get on the bus. I won’t drive. I’ll walk somewhere if it’s a mile or two. With eating, for me it was moving away from carbs like French fries and bread. —S. Epatha Merkerson[/quote]

S. Epatha: Exactly. If you don’t have a regular doctor, find one. Also, know what your A1C is, which is as simple as taking a blood test. What I’ve learned is that people who don’t have diabetes, your A1C should be between 4 to 6 percent. Those who do have diabetes, it should be below 7 percent. When you think of the fact that nearly half of those with type 2 diabetes are not meeting their A1C goal, it’s a wake up call for all of us, not just for African-Americans.

DeShuna: You have a very active acting career. Being so busy, is it challenging to manage the disease?

S. Epatha: If you leave your house with a meal, then you won’t go to the restaurant. You won’t go to the store and buy things that you shouldn’t get. It’s all about planning. Not just for you, but it’s also you and your doctor coming up with a plan that works best for you. It doesn’t mean taking away things that you like. Everything should be in moderation. That’s what works best for me. Watch the portions that you put on your plate and make sure that you’re exercising. Taking the skin off the chicken, which is so hard for me to do.

DeShuna: Yes, I’ sure taking the skin off is hard. It would be for me. But, you only get one body and one life.

S. Epatha: Yes, you’re exactly right. That’s why you have to be diligent—that’s with anything worth preserving.

Listen to an interview Spencer did on her weekly radio show, emPower Hour, on DC’s 89.3 FM WPFW with Merkerson. To learn about A1C and to take the pledge to better manage your type 2 diabetes, visit www.AmericaDiabetesChallenge.com.

I originally wrote this Q&A for my online magazine, emPowermagazine.com.

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