TAKING CONTROL—Herb Durham talks about not letting diabetes control his life and his participation, with his wife, Gail, in a CMU study on how spouses help deal with the disease. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

TAKING CONTROL—Herb Durham talks about not letting diabetes control his life and his participation, with his wife, Gail, in a CMU study on how spouses help deal with the disease. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Looking at Herb Durham, healthy, fit, active, one would have no idea that two years ago he was so sick he couldn’t even get a new eyeglasses prescription and that he was taking three injections a day—of insulin.

Durham is one of the 4.9 million African-Americans over 20 with Type II diabetes, but he has refused to let it beat him.

“Toward the end of her life, my mother had diabetes, and that stayed with me, what it did to her,” he said. “I was determined that would not be my lifestyle. I started to exercise, make better food choices and keep my blood sugar levels steady. Now, it’s just a pill to take before meals. It’s basically learning to manage the disease.”

That learning process, specifically how patients and their spouses deal with the changes the disease brings about, is the focus of a study led by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Vicki Helgeson and her team. Durham and his wife, Gail, were among the first participants.

Now a year and a half in, the five-year project currently has 80 participating couples, 32 of which are African-Americans. Their goal is to have 200, half of them Black because African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes as Whites.

“We’ve basically spent nearly all of our recruiting budget on African-Americans. We just find White people along the way,” said Helgeson. “We’re at community centers like the Kingsley Association, we had a program at Macedonia (Baptist Church, in the Hill District) and we’ll be at Mt. Ararat (Baptist Church) again in March. We’re even advertising with the Port Authority.”

So far, the research team appears to have controls for almost every variable. They have participants ranging in age from 37-82, with educations from high school dropout to advanced degrees, and they have a broad distribution of weight ranges in both the Black and White populations.

“In the end we want to find what are the most helpful things partners can do and what is the least helpful so we can develop and intervention protocol and then broaden it, because not everyone (with diabetes) is part of a couple,” said Helgeson.

The study itself lasts for six months, during which  patients are monitored for blood pressure, activity levels, blood glucose levels and body mass index, while also answering multiple questionnaires, participating in video-taped interviews and filling out daily questions via iPad on their relationship with their illness and their spouse.

Some of the preliminary results show more differences between male and female subjects than between Blacks and Whites.

“Males say their partners help more than females, and are more involved. But they also say they are more likely to drive them crazy,” Helgeson said. “Females say their spouses are helpful, but not as helpful.  Though, uniformly they tell us they are happy in their relationships and their partners are helpful. Whatever a partner does, good or bad, seems to have more of an effect on females than males.”

One racial difference that has been noted so far is that the three-month running test of blood glucose levels shows much more vacillation in Blacks than Whites. Helgeson said they don’t know why, but that it may bee related to the fact that White report being more stressed about the disease than Blacks.

In Durham’s case, the biggest help his wife may have given was to get him into the study to begin with.

“I was part of another women’s research study at UPMC when I heard about it,” she said. “My role as his wife is to be there with support and encouragement–but he really didn’t need much.  I’m just grateful. His turnaround has been astounding.”

For more information or to enroll, contact project manager Pamela R. Snyder by phone at 412-268-2784, or by email at ps3x@andrew.cmu.edu.

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