Many people I’ve talked with have embarked upon a process of reinventing themselves after receiving a diabetes diagnosis. I’m impressed and inspired by the many examples I’ve seen of people who have adopted healthier lifestyles and taken on the role of diabetes advocate. People like Kathryn Sheehan, Maxine Phillips and Dennis Sheehan come to mind. Today I’d like to share another story of inspiring transformation with you. Have your superhero cape handy and read on!
Over the past couple of years, writer Sia Figiel has embarked on an ambitious journey to renovate her life and health, and help others along the way. After living with type 2 diabetes for nearly a decade, and weighing 400 pounds, Sia decided it was time to make her health a priority. Through diet and exercise, she has lost 100 pounds and taken on the role of diabetes advocate, speaking at American Diabetes Association events, conferences and universities, often wearing a Superman® t-shirt and cape.
“Anyone who takes charge of their own life is a superhero, in my book,” she said. “It takes super strength to wake up in the morning and haul your 400 pound body to go do something for yourself. That’s the super strength that is needed to combat diabetes, and become an advocate for yourself, and most importantly, for others. It’s all about taking your own cape and flying.”
All in the Family
Sia’s experience with diabetes began with her parents; both her mother and father lived with type 2 diabetes. Originally from the Independent State of Samoa, Sia had moved in 2000 to American Samoa, where her mother was seeking dialysis treatment.
“Back in 2000, there wasn’t a lot of diabetes education, despite the prevalence of obesity and diabetes on the island,” she said. “To me, people still do not understand the relationship between food, exercise and diabetes. Samoan culture values genealogies and relationships. The role food plays in honoring and acknowledging these is a reflection of one’s generosity and thoughtfulness. We don’t have to change that one bit. In fact, that’s what’s beautiful about our culture. But we do have to change the types of food we give to express our love. Ideally, a return to a more indigenous staple that consists of complex carbohydrates and protein from the sea instead of processed foods such as tin fish, tin meat, white rice, Kool-Aid®, soda and fast foods would be a great beginning.”
Sia, who is the oldest in her family, served along with her two sisters and two brothers as her parents’ caregiver as they managed complications associated with diabetes. “Our family, including our own parents, had very little knowledge about how to care for someone with diabetes,” she said. “In fact, we didn’t even know that type 2 diabetes can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise until they had both passed. It was truly unfortunate that my parents didn’t know much about the disease that they lived with. All five of us children were there for them. As a single parent living away from family, I had to tell myself that, if I really loved my sons, the best gift I could give them is to take care for myself.”
With this family history of type 2 diabetes, when Sia noticed tingling in her feet and fingers, she felt compelled to visit her doctor to be tested for diabetes in 2003. A blood sugar level of near 300 confirmed Sia lives with type 2 diabetes.
After her diagnosis, Sia started walking for exercise, but did not change her diet or eating habits. “Even though I saw how my parents had visibly suffered, I was still in denial, thinking, ‘That won’t happen to me,’” she said. “I didn’t really take it as seriously as I should have. I continued on with my own lifestyle of not doing as much as I should.”
A New Path
In June 2012, Sia moved to Utah with her two sons and her sister and her children to start a new job. She saw the move as an opportunity to try to take control of her health, and the family of nine joined the local recreational center and began exercising together, along with transitioning to a vegetarian diet. Sia’s sister often watched Sia’s sons while Sia exercised, and made sure there were always fresh fruits and vegetables in the fridge.
“Being in a place where we knew no one gave me the self-confidence to get into a swimsuit, and start swimming and eating differently,” Sia said. “In nine months, I had lost about 100 pounds. It was a great incentive to know I was finally doing something about it.”
Three days before Christmas in 2012, Sia saw another opportunity. After several years of mouth pain, her dentist informed her that all of her teeth would need to be removed due to advanced periodontal disease. Sia asked a friend to film the procedure and posted the video on YouTube to serve as encouragement for others to make health a priority.
“I think that’s when I realized that the advocacy of one person can really make an impact on the lives of others, even maybe just one other person,” she said. “I realized that I had a much larger role as far as diabetes is concerned, especially in the Pacific Island community, where these sorts of things are taboo and not spoken about. I decided that I needed to become that catalyst for change, and break that silence of shame that surrounds diabetes.”
Every day offers the opportunity to make healthy choices for Sia. “Although I’ve lost all this weight, and I have all this knowledge, I still struggle daily,” she said. “I wake up at 4 a.m. so that I’m at the gym when it opens at 5. I prepare the night before because I know I need to stay hydrated. I ask myself daily, what am I going to eat? It’s all about choices. And it’s all up to you. You have the power to change how your story ends.”
Encouraged by her weight loss, Sia was motivated to continue with her healthy efforts. An online search for weight loss support revealed Annette Miller, a member of the CNN® 2013 Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge. Sia was so inspired by Annette’s story that she applied for the 2014 Challenge, and was accepted as a member of the six-person team.
Since January 2014, the “Sassy Six” has received daily emails and support from a trainer, and is training to participate in a triathlon this month. The team gathered in June for a mock triathlon, comprised of swimming 400 yards in the ocean, biking 12 miles and running 5K, which Sia successfully completed. Sia has shared her progress on Twitter at @TriHardSia.
“Sometimes, it’s having the audacity to dare, to push yourself and say, ‘Why not me? Why not the word ‘triathlon’ and my name next to it?’” she said. “I think it’s when we stop dreaming that we lose hope. When you say to yourself, ‘Yes, I can do this,’ I feel like the universe will conspire to get you there.”
What a powerful story and message! I was definitely feeling some of that super strength pouring through as I talked with Sia. Her drive to transform herself and help others is inspiring and commendable. I look forward to hearing more about her experience. Thanks so much, Sia, for sharing your story.
All the best,
Disclosure: Sia Figiel received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.
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