Q&A: Susan Fowlkes, Knox County Health Department's clinical nutrition director

Susan Fowlkes is the Knox County Health Department's clinical nutrition director and lead on its diabetes management classes open to the public—one five-class series will be held at the Cansler YMCA at noon on Thursdays starting Feb. 2, while the new group interactive option is open for groups of 8-15. Both options are free of charge.

What does the Health Department have on offer for diabetics?

We have two programs. One is our diabetes self-management series, which we have done since 1970.

Since 1970? No kidding.

No kidding. We are the best-kept secret in town. We do three series of the classes each year, and this one starts Feb. 2 at noon. We're taking it out of the health department and over to the Cansler YMCA.

Which sessions do diabetics need most?

The problem is, they're all needed. To keep blood sugar in the normal range, a diabetic has to do medications, manage what you eat—nutrition is very important—and exercise.

Why is "normal range" blood sugar so important?

Then you do not get complications, like problems with your nerves—neuropathy. Tingling in your legs, hands, arms, that signals that something is wrong. Neuropathy can result in amputations; we don't want to go there. Other complications include eye and kidney problems—diabetes is the leading cause of blindness and one of the leading causes of kidney disease. And heart problems. Diabetics are four times as likely to have a heart attack as someone who's not a diabetic.

Do we tend to be in denial about diabetes?

Very, very much. Big denial. In Knox County, diabetes was the seventh leading cause of premature death in 2005. In 2008, almost 10 percent of adults here had been diagnosed with diabetes. But to manage it, people have to change their lifestyles and we humans are reluctant to change. It's one of those, "Not me, those complications, that's not going to happen to me."

People might worry they'll be judged if they come to a class.

Oh, heaven's no. Everyone's in the same boat. It's strictly an education thing, a classroom setting, but people learn from each other and they have sidebar conversations.

And there's another KCHD diabetes management program that's new?

Yes, Diabetes Conversation Maps. It's unique, four different sessions conducted like a board game. The board will ask you questions, and then all progress together across the map—it's not a competition. The tool is designed for groups of 8-15, and our trained staff will facilitate the program for free at any business, church or organization. We'd like to offer it to whomever would like to do it, but it's not something for people without diabetes. It's a fun way to share about your diabetics journey. And it is a journey. It doesn't go away. Once you have diabetes, you're on the journey for life.

You're taking reservations for the Cansler Y classes?

Yes, and we have a grant to provide a lunch suitable for diabetics at each session. It's wonderful. A woman called me over to ask, "What of this can I eat?" and I told her "Everything." She had no idea she could eat so many foods.

Call 215-5170 to reserve a spot for all five sessions of the diabetes self management series held at the Cansler YMCA Thursdays at noon, beginning Feb. 2—or for more information about bringing the Diabetes Conversation Maps to your group.