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Transcript: "Native Americans and Diabetes"

Lona Brown: Onion, garlic, caminos, oregano, chili powder, tomatoes...

Woman: Lona Brown is busy cooking for her children and grandchildren, following her father's old recipe for tacos.

Lona Brown: Do you want another pickle?

Child: I got a big pickle!

Announcer: The 48-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota is also following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother in developing diabetes.

Lona Brown: From what I knew when I was younger, you get diabetes, they cut your feet off. So when I got diabetes, I didn't want to accept it because it meant my feet are going to go.

Announcer: She had an American Indian mother and a Hispanic father. Her children's father is an African-American. This means her children have inherited genes from the three highest-risk groups for developing diabetes. The odds are stacked against them. Much of what the world now knows about Type II diabetes is a result of work carried on at the National Institutes of Health in Phoenix. Doctors started working with Pima Indians who live in the region because they had extremely high numbers of diabetes cases.

Peter Bennett, M.D.: People with diabetes suffer roughly twice the mortality rates of people without diabetes. And what we've seen in the Pima population over -- even over this past 30 years, is that the frequency of the disease, the rate of the development of disease, has actually increased over time.

Announcer: In the 1930s, the Pima's native diet started to change. They began eating less of the natural foods like squash, wild spinach and beans, and more high-fat, processed foods. Once known as strong runners and trusted scouts for the U.S. cavalry, in modern society they walk and run considerably less. Today, they have the highest diabetes population in the world.

Peter Bennett, M.D.: Given the fact that the epidemic has occurred as a result of changes in lifestyle, this also implies that the disease could be prevented also by changes in lifestyle.

Announcer: Rachel Peters belongs to the Pima Indian community and she also works in the NIH labs. Last December, she, too, was diagnosed with the disease.

Rachel Peters: I knew for a long time that eventually if I didn't take care of myself, this was what was going to happen, so -- but it still hit me hard.

Announcer: For the first three months, Rachel needed medication to bring her blood sugar levels under control, but now she's able to manage her early-stage diabetes through exercise and diet.

Rachel Peters: I got to reading labels on things that I ate and you know, that was new to me, because I never -- how I understood it was sugar -- you know, regular sugar, like pop and candy and ice cream, those types of sugars, but I didn't realize that the carbohydrates were also a longer-acting sugar.

Announcer: Dr. William Knowler is an epidemiologist with the NIH.

William Knowler, M.D.: Because the disease can develop gradually over many years, people can have high blood sugar and not necessarily recognize the symptoms, not know that they're developing the eye disease or the heart or kidney disease of diabetes. Many people do not know they have the disease because they're not regularly tested for it.

Lona Brown: Do you take blood pressure medicine?

Announcer: Back in St. Paul, Lona, who is a nurse by profession, learned she had diabetes when she started her career and had a complete physical. She was 40 years old. By that point, she figured she had suffered from high blood sugar for at least 15 years.

Lona Brown: You can have a seat right in here, Ramona.

Ramona: Okay.

Lona Brown: Now we're going to be doing a diabetic foot check yearly, okay?

Announcer: Not only is Lona a diabetic herself, but she also treats diabetic patients. Because of her heritage she feels a special connection with foot care. Her Indian name is Iron Woman Who Walks Home.

Lona Brown: That was my great-grandmother's name and I was born on her birthday so I take pride in that and I'm very proud of that name and that's what makes me think a little bit more about people and their feet, especially Indian people and their feet. They do a lot of walking and they're giving respect by letting you treat them and take care of their feet. But it's a hard disease to own, but I'm still learning and I'm still learning and the more I learn the more I want to take care of myself. Like I said before, I've got grandchildren and I want to be here kicking with both feet, you know?

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