The Disciplined Diabetic
A longtime Iowa State leader draws on his athletic background to fight a threatening disease.
By Steve Sullivan
Tom Hill's intense focus during college paid off: He was one of the top 10 runners in the country for a stretch of years and in 1970 he was the No. 1 high hurdler in the world. He spent 1971 rehabbing a knee injury, but came roaring back in 1972, claiming a bronze medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the Olympics in Munich.
More than four decades later, he finds himself needing to call on that discipline again. It isn’t about athletic achievement this time, though. It’s about health. Tom Hill is a diabetic.
During a routine checkup in June 2013, Hill’s physician, McFarland Clinic’s Dr. Gary Erbes, noted that his blood sugar looked a little high. Tests verified that Hill had type 2 diabetes.“I was freaking out,” says Hill.
It’s easy to see why. This is an active, physically fit guy. The word “sedentary” simply isn’t in his vocabulary. He’s been senior vice president for student affairs at Iowa State University for 18 years, a challenging position that keeps him incredibly busy. He works out regularly and follows what he considered a healthy diet.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes. It is prevalent in middle-aged and older people, though people can develop the disease at any age. People who are overweight or inactive are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. African Americans are at a higher risk for diabetes. In fact, Hill’s brother was diagnosed with the disease several years ago. According to the American Diabetes Association, 13.2 percent of all African Americans aged 20 years or older have diabetes, and African Americans are 1.7 times more likely to have diabetes as non Hispanic whites.
Erbes suggested Hill try metformin, a medication used to treat high blood sugar levels caused by type 2 diabetes. But meds were the last thing Hill wanted. “I got this thing in my head about taking pills,” he says. “Steroids were going on when I was a competitor and I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want anything that wasn’t natural. I made it a point to stay away from it and that has stuck with me.” Hill asked what else he could do. Erbes suggested an alternative: Seek the help of a diabetes educator at Mary Greeley’s Diabetes Education and Nutrition Center.
When he told center supervisor Thyra Cox, RN, MSN, that he wanted to do something other than medication, “she just lit up,” says Hill. “Thyra is very good at explaining diabetes, at getting me to understand the disease. She made it clear that it was up to me to determine how hard I was willing to work and what I was willing to do. And when she suggested trying diet and exercise, I thought, ‘You’re talking my game now.’”
“He saw that learning he had diabetes at a fairly early stage was a good thing, instead of something to be traumatized by,” says Cox. “When people approach diabetes this way, it is a gift. They want to know what they need to do to control the disease and they do it.”
Some patients are able to use lifestyle changes to manage their diabetes but in some cases the disease is at a point where medication is needed. Hill may face that need down the road but right now he’s focusing on lifestyle.
Hill was typically going to the gym three days a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. It was a routine partially dictated by a hip replacement he had 10 years ago. He does a set of therapist prescribed exercises, including stationary bike, elliptical, and leg weights.
But here’s the thing: That job of his sometimes keeps Hill working well into the night, attending student meetings or special university events. If work ran long on an exercise day, Hill would likely skip it.
“I made excuses. I’d tell myself that I would make up for it later,” says Hill. “The seriousness of this diagnosis really heightened my awareness of the importance of my exercise regimen. I don’t make excuses anymore.”
Now, if he has a meeting on a Tuesday that runs until say 9:30 p.m., he goes to the gym after that meeting. No excuses, just focus, just like when he was a champion athlete.
“It takes discipline. I draw on my athletic background,” Hill says. “In my head, I said, ‘Okay dude, we’re back in training.’ I wouldn’t skip practice when I was running and I’m not going to skip exercise now.”
Hill attends a lot of catered events and instead of simply eating what the menu offers, he skips the meal or only eats a portion of it. Dessert? That now goes untouched.
“I’ve sat through banquets and haven’t eaten a thing,” he says. And then there’s orange juice. Hill admits to loving the stuff, often downing a gallon a day. At least he did until the diagnosis.
“I haven’t had a drop since June 9. I went cold turkey,” he says.
The always–filled candy dishes in the office? Well, Hill could have easily asked his staff to stash the sweets, but he didn’t.
“I walk past them every day. You can smell them,” he says. “That’s my life. I’m going to be seeing stuff like that every day and if I can’t walk by that and not touch it, I got a problem.”
He’s lost about 20 pounds. His hemoglobin A1C, which is the percent of glucose in your blood, has dropped nearly 1 percent since his diagnosis.
Hill has a lot to be healthy for, too. Iowa State enrollment is booming. Divorced for 22 years, Hill got remarried a few years ago—to his first wife. He and his wife have two sons and two grandsons.
“I can’t say enough about the healthcare professionals that have helped me – they helped me detect the disease and now are helping me manage it,” he says. “I’m in a pretty good place right now because of it.”
A 'School' for Diabetes Education starts with a conversation.
“What do you want to learn about your disease?”
With that, Thyra Cox opens up a conversation with a person facing a new diabetes diagnosis. It’s an important question, but the answer is even more important.
“To deliver patient-centered care, I want to know what the patient wants to know, and what they want to get out of that first visit,” says Cox, supervisor for Mary Greeley’s Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center. “It helps me really tap into who they are and where they are coming from. Some people are scared and really need to talk through that fear. Some people are ready to take control of the disease and want to know the best course of action.”
The staff are trained as Diabetes Educators and follow standards established by the American Diabetes Association. They help people of all ages deal with all forms of diabetes, including type 2, the most common form of the disease; type 1, which is prevalent in children and young adults; gestational, which effects pregnant women; and pre-diabetes.
“We help patients create a plan of action that could include lifestyle changes and medication management. We consider a variety of strategies, including changes to eating patterns, increasing activity, and learning how to use blood glucose meter testing to help them understand what is happening to their bodies,” says Cox.
The Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center provides groups as well. “People love them. They learn so much from each other,” says Cox.
Patients need a doctor’s referral to use the services of the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center. Medicare and most insurance provide newly diagnosed patients coverage for 10 hours of diabetes education over a 12-month period. To learn more, visit the Diabetes & Nutrition Education Center webpage
or call 515-956-2880.