FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Health awareness groups often use celebrities as advocates, particularly if they've been through a particular struggle themselves. Dr. Michael Bush is a leading diabetes expert and a medical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. One day entertainer Ben Vereen showed up at his office. After a few months of treatment, the next thing they knew, they were on the road together spreading the word. The road led here to our NPR studios.

Mr. BEN VEREEN (Entertainer): On Christmas of last year, I was diagnosed with diabetes, and it was a shock at first and - because I'd had it before but I thought I'd had my hand on it and said, hey, I'm cool with that, I'll walk away from it, no problem. But this time it hit, and they put me on insulin right away and talked to me about changing my lifestyle. And then I got the chance to meet Dr. Bush, who is the top, you know, and he helped me with the program, explained it to me and made things a little bit more understandable.

CHIDEYA: How did you - did you know what was wrong before you went in to get checked?

Mr. VEREEN: I had no idea, and that's why we're here. To raise awareness, and the one - that's a good question because the fact that I did not know the symptoms. And Dr. Bush, maybe you could talk about the symptoms because we don't know. As a people, we don't know what to look for.

Dr. MICHAEL BUSH (Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles; Diabetes Expert): You know, absolutely. I think it's real important for folks to realize that - how do you know if you have diabetes? You don't. Well, that's not - look, we all know there's this classical list of things that were promoted years ago to say, if you have a sore that doesn't heal, if you have lots of urination, if you have lots of thirst. And those are the symptoms of diabetes out of control. But that's pretty far down the line.

What we really want to do is diagnose diabetes in its most early stage, and you don't know if you have diabetes at that point because you don't have any symptoms. So what would you do - what would you do if you were a high-risk person for diabetes? Let me tell you what high risk is. High risk is if you're not Caucasian, if you're not of European derivation. There's a higher incidence of adult diabetes. High risk is if you're overweight, if there's diabetes in your family, if you've given birth to a baby over nine pounds. You may have had diabetes during that pregnancy, and it's going to come and get you again later in life.

And there are a number of other things that might tell somebody that they were at higher risk for diabetes. What should you do? Very simple. A fasting blood sugar. And that means a blood sugar done in the morning after eating nothing from the night before, is the easiest criterion we want patients and doctors to be aware for diagnosing diabetes. And if that morning blood sugar is over 120 - is 126 or greater, that's diabetes.

Mr. VEREEN: And I - you know, I think - I want to drive it home. Please, when you have your checkups, ask your doctor because we don't ask.

Dr. BUSH: Ben, you know what diagnosis you had?

Mr. VEREEN: No.

DR. BUSH: After you thought you had taken care of it?

Mr. VEREEN: What?

Dr. BUSH: You had another diagnosis.

Mr. VEREEN: Exactly.

Dr. BUSH: It was called pre-diabetes.

Mr. VEREEN: Yes, exactly.

Dr. BUSH: Because it meant you had the gene. It came out at a certain point in your life. You were able to get your diet together and your lifestyle together and get it controlled.

Mr. VEREEN: You see? Right, you see? Life seemed like it was good.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you, when you say you had the gene, do you literally mean a genetic transmission of a certain gene that causes diabetes?

Dr. BUSH: Well, we know that adult diabetes, usually called type 2 diabetes, but adult diabetes in general is something that runs in families. Now it doesn't skip a generation, that's an old wives' tale that folks think, but it doesn't necessarily go down from father to son or mother to daughter or one generation after another. In fact, about 80 percent of folks who have diabetes, if you ask them if there's diabetes in their family - well, you know what they say to me? They say, well, yeah, my father had diabetes, but he was old. Duh. That's type 2 diabetes. That's adult diabetes. So it doesn't matter if dad got it at age 80. If you're 55, you may still have a risk of being diabetic at that point.

And the way to know? Get a fasting blood sugar done and find out if you're in a normal range. Normal is a blood sugar under 100. Diabetes is a blood sugar over 125 in the morning. And if you're in between? That's that pre-diabetes range that we've been trying to teach doctors and patients to spend a lot more attention to.

Mr. VEREEN: You know, everything that he said, you know, I had all those, and I didn't pay attention to it. You know, I always had the dry mouth, the urinating all the time, feeling like I didn't want to get up and do anything. You know, I was lazy. I was, you know, this isn't like me. Something's wrong, and then finally I collapsed. And my daughter, Koran(ph), takes me to the hospital. And they do my blood, and they say, hey, you know?

CHIDEYA: So, what was your treatment plan afterwards?

Mr. VEREEN: Well, my treatment plan was to meet this man right here. And ask him, what do I do now? You know?

CHIDEYA: So, what did you do?

Mr. VEREEN: I did what he said.

Dr. BUSH: Well, Ben is taking insulin, and he's doing it extremely well. He checks his blood sugar. He watches his diet. We talked about making other adjustments in terms of his insulin schedule.

CHIDEYA: Are you afraid, ever, that, you know - I mean, despite the fact that it sounds like you are very focused and have things very much under control...

Mr. VEREEN: You have to be.

CHIDEYA: With your doctor, are you afraid that this will shorten your life?

Mr. VEREEN: No. No. I put that out of my consciousness. We believe in spirit, mind, body. And now that I've been diagnosed with this and I understand it and I have a great, great leader here in teaching me how to work with my body, I can teach more, and I can also, in that teachings, I am also learning. Learning.

Dr. BUSH: People tend to go one of two directions. They either think diabetes is nothing, it just means Uncle Ed can't have desert, or it's this terrible, serious disease where your kidneys are going to fail tomorrow. And the fact is, it's a very manageable disease. I want people who don't have diabetes to be aware that they might be at risk. Twenty-four million people in this country with diabetes and about 6 to 8 million of them may have it and not even know they have it.

CHIDEYA: And you also have a Web site that tells your story.

Mr. VEREEN: Yes, it's called...

CHIDEYA: Bensdiabetesstory.com.

Mr. VEREEN: You said that very well.

CHIDEYA: Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: No, but I mean, I'm fascinated that you also chose to just, you know, make sure that people know what you've been through.

Mr. VEREEN: There's a song we used to sing in church back in Brooklyn. It's if I could help somebody along my way, then my living will not be in vain. So I have been blessed with the opportunity to be on the stage. And so today we take the stage for diabetes awareness.

CHIDEYA: Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time.

Mr. VEREEN: Thank you. Thank you.

Dr. BUSH: Thanks. A pleasure to be here.

CHIDEYA: That was Tony Award-winning entertainer, Ben Vereen, and Dr. Michael Bush, a diabetes expert and a medical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. They're working together on the outreach program, "Take The Stage For Diabetes Awareness," and they joined us here at our NPR West studios.

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