Terri Rice grew depressed, avoided going to the doctor and ignored her diagnosis as pre-diabetic until she finally became diabetic.
"I was scared," said Rice, a Cherry Hill mother of two. "My body was hurting. I hadn't been out of the house in two years. I was ready for change."
When she heard about Fabulous You, a program created by the Maryland chapter of the American Diabetes Association, on a TV news report in September, Rice signed up. Designed for diabetic and pre-diabetic women willing to commit to health-improving lifestyle changes, Fabulous You helped Rice, 36, lose more than 20 pounds in two months. She started exercising, changed her diet, began volunteering at her daughter's school and started attending church again.
"It gives you the tools you can use for life," said Rice.
The 15 women who completed the inaugural nine-month program — the first of its kind, according to ADA regional director Kathy Rogers — lost as much as 28 pounds and saw significant improvements in their blood sugar levels. Their accomplishments are being celebrated Thursday at a luncheon at Horseshoe Casino, and, given its preliminary success, Fabulous You is likely to be replicated nationally, Rogers said.
"When you'd see the lab work and notes from the doctors — it's been incredible," said Tracy Newsome, director of community health partnerships for the Maryland chapter of the ADA.
The women, who ranged in age from 26 to 73, attended free classes every Tuesday for 10 weeks, then met twice a month to discuss nutrition, share health and cooking tips, and exercise together. The results of the program, which was funded through private grants and support from the Cigna Foundation, were more impressive than even organizers expected.
"We're really excited about the transformation in these women," says Dr. Michelle Gourdine, president of the board of directors for the ADA Maryland chapter.
An independent evaluator is tabulating the final medical results, but all of the participants lost between six and 28 pounds, Newsome said. And some of them saw an improvement of 5 percent in their A1C numbers, which show the average blood sugar level in patients and are used by doctors to detect and manage type-2 diabetes.
There were also less tangible results — women who once struggled to exercise could now ride bikes with their grandchildren; women who lacked self-confidence were giving TV interviews.
"There's a glow — I can't even describe it," said Newsome.
Too often, because many women play the role of caretaker for their families, they tend to others first and forget to make their own health a priority, Newsome said. "They neglect themselves. The aim is to empower women to improve their health outcomes. They set their own goals."
There's also a "trickle-down" effect, with women teaching the healthy habits they learned to their children and spouses. Rice, for instance, sees her 15-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter eating more vegetables because of the changes in her cooking.
The meetings have been key, she and other participants say. In addition to educational sessions, there were cooking demonstrations, supermarket tours and fitness classes ranging from Zumba to tai chi.
"It was a lot of fun. We did a lot of laughing," said India Harris, a 55-year-old pre-diabetic woman from Mount Vernon.
The meetings also gave the women a chance to encourage one another.
"We've become friends with a common goal," Harris said.
When Harris went to a health expo at the Baltimore Convention Center earlier this year, she had diminished vision in her left eye. She'd joined a gym but quickly regained the pounds she initially lost.
"Doing it on my own, it worked for about a minute," said Harris. "I was looking for something longer-term."
She now uses a portion control plate as a visual reminder to fill up on vegetables and fruits with a little whole grain and a palm-sized serving of protein. She reads labels on foods, counts calories and has eliminated soda from her diet. She used to snack on pies, cookies and cake. Now, she might have a small slice of cake on a special occasion, but her go-to snacks are air-popped popcorn, sunflower seeds and hummus with crackers.
Her new diet and exercise regimen, which includes long weekend walks, has resulted in a 26-pound weight loss. She still has 10 or 15 pounds to go before she reaches the goal weight set by her doctor, she said, "but I'm a lot closer, and I'll continue with it."
Harris plans to join another diabetes support group to "keep on track."
"For me, it helps to keep my motivation to be accountable," she said. "It's easy to go back to the old ways."
Studies have shown that having a support system — such as working out with a friend — is extremely helpful for patients to maintain positive health changes over the long term, said Dr. Rita Kalyani, editor-in-chief of the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Guide and an assistant professor of medicine at Hopkins.
Those changes are critical, Dr. Kalyani said: "Lifestyle modifications are the cornerstone of managing diabetes."
In 2012, 29.1 million Americans, or 9.3 percent of the population, had diabetes, but 8.1 million of them were undiagnosed, according to the National Diabetes Statistics Report released last year. In 2012, 86 million Americans had pre-diabetes, a condition in which patients' blood sugar is not yet high enough to be classified as type-2 diabetes but is still cause for alarm — long-term damage to the heart and circulatory system may have already begun. That's up from 79 million in 2010. About 76 million Americans have undiagnosed pre-diabetes,
The potential consequences of diabetes are dire: Diabetes increases the risk of stroke, heart attacks, kidney failure, blindness, eye problems and the need for amputations.
Having to get two stents to open a blocked artery in her heart was a "wake-up call" for Sunday Floyd, a 60-year-old O'Donnell Heights grandmother of seven, to start taking her diabetes diagnosis and overall health more seriously.
"It was the first time I felt like I needed to do something more," said Floyd. Before she signed up for Fabulous You, "I kept saying, 'I'm not going to stick myself.'"
Through Fabulous You, Floyd has learned to monitor her glucose levels regularly. She rides bikes and walks to the school track with her grandchildren. And, she said, she's even starting to like fresh spinach.
"It's an acquired taste," Floyd said, laughing.
Floyd and many of the other Fabulous You participants were recruited at a "Diabetes Care Day" event at Lexington Market in March. Although as many as 50 women were initially interested, not all could make the commitment to the program. The Maryland ADA chapter is seeking funding to start its next Fabulous You group in March and is accepting inquires from women who'd like to participate.
Some of this year's Fabulous You veterans will serve as mentors to the new cohort. Many of them will continue exercising with one another or other friends, and some plan to join other support groups because of the accountability and structure it offers.
Rice, who joined Fabulous You near the end of the cycle, plans to start again with the next group of women.
"I need to be around people who lift me up," said Rice. "This is important."