HENDERSON, Nev. – As they face the physical, emotional and financial hardships of living with diabetes, the Johnson family of Southern Utah is determined to raise both awareness and funds to fight the debilitating disease.
Life as they knew it came to a crashing halt when Todd Johnson, 43, was diagnosed with advanced diabetes, along with kidney failure, congestive heart failure and other complications. Uninsured and financially overwhelmed, the family of eight is now battling to make ends meet on a daily basis and are reaching out to the community for help, and to share their cautionary message of the importance of caring about your health before it’s too late.
According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes is a group of diseases characterized by high blood glucose levels that result from defects in the body’s ability to produce and/or use insulin. The most common are Type 1 (juvenile diabetes) and Type 2 (adult-onset diabetes).
The 2011 National Diabetes Fact Sheet reported that 25.8 million Americans (8.3 percent of the total population) suffer from diabetes. About 79 million more are prediabetic, with 1.9 million new cases diagnosed in 2010 alone. Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people each year than AIDS and breast cancer combined. It currently has no cure.
The disease is deadly alone, not to mention the numerous and widespread health complications that accompany it. Diabetes often leads to high blood pressure, heart disease, vision impairment, kidney disease, stroke, immune system deficiency, poor circulation and foot ulcers (which may be treated through amputation), and nervous system disorders.
Many people with a family history of diabetes develop it at some point in their lives, but the risk factors associated with an unhealthy lifestyle can be just as dangerous. The majority of diabetes patients are significantly overweight or obese, rarely exercise and eat a poor diet.
One family’s story
The Johnson family is all too familiar with the impacts of diabetes on daily life. Originally from Southern Utah, Todd and Rhonda Johnson have a blended family of six children (ages 10 to 21) and live in Henderson, Nev. They married in 2002. Todd Johnson worked in sales, and his wife was a stay-at-home mom.
While still in his youth, Todd Johnson’s body was hit with the double whammy of genetic predisposition (both his parents have diabetes) and unhealthy habits, eventually ballooning to 370 pounds. Diagnosed in his mid-20s, he followed his doctor’s advice and made lifestyle changes ”for a while.” But his carelessness came back to haunt him about three years ago.
“It’s really my fault. I know there’s no one else to blame,” he said. “When you’re young, you think you’re invincible.”
Todd Johnson’s health took a turn for the worse in late 2011; doctors said his diabetes was advanced 10-15 years beyond his age. In 2012, he was diagnosed with kidney failure and heart disease, with a sac of fluid around his heart. He is legally blind due to swelling in his retinas and suffers from severe nerve pain in his lower extremities. He takes 15 medications daily to manage his diabetes and accompanying symptoms, causing debilitating side effects. In about a year, he is expected to need a kidney transplant.
Everything has turned upside down for the family since.
“It became an entire lifestyle change that has taken time and patience to master,” Rhonda Johnson said.
Due to his health, Todd Johnson lost his job in 2011 and remains unable to work. Rhonda Johnson, now the sole provider, works full-time at a department store in Las Vegas, making wages that are barely enough to support the family’s everyday expenses. Their health insurance fell apart with the launch of the Affordable Care Act. Uninsured, they’re drowning in bills.
“We’ve gone from having $150,000 a year to having less than $25,000 a year,” she said. “We’re broke before I even get up in the morning.”
The couple’s oldest daughter, Mackenzie Johnson, is leading an online campaign with GoFundMe to raise money to help her parents with their staggering medical bills and everyday living costs. Donations so far total $2,476.
“If we have (enough) donations, we could start to pay off the thousands of dollars of hospital bills they have,” Mackenzie Johnson said. “My dad could go get his retina shots every six weeks, so that he can see. We could start the process of getting him a kidney transplant. It would lift a lot of stress off both my mother and father. I honestly don’t know how they manage to pay their rent, bills and still put food on the table. My parents have sacrificed a lot for me and my siblings, and it would mean the world to me if I could help.”
The family has also created a fundraising auction via Facebook that is open through Dec. 5. Rhonda Johnson runs a blog, “Johnson Style,” that she updates every month with thoughts on her family’s struggle, giving a powerful firsthand perspective on life with diabetes.
Call for awareness
Rather than pity, Todd Johnson hopes his story will inspire awareness of diabetes and motivate people to take preventative action against the disease. An estimated 7 million Americans have diabetes but don’t know it, and many more who have been diagnosed do not properly treat their condition.
“Diabetes is a disease you don’t feel; you’re not aware of the damage you’re doing to your body. I didn‘t realize what I was doing to myself until it was too late,” he said. “I don’t want anyone to make the same mistakes I did. Take care of yourself before you get as bad as I am.”
“Diabetes is very hard on the body,” said Dr. Michael Codiga, an internal medicine specialist at the Intermountain Healthcare River Road Clinic in St. George. “(But) with teamwork and dedication, it can be managed effectively. It is absolutely possible to recover from diabetes and related health issues.”
If you have a family history of diabetes or other risk factors, it’s important to get your A1C level checked regularly. Even if you don’t, normally scheduled physicals are a wise idea for all people.
The online ADA Diabetes Risk Test is a free, fast way to determine if you need to talk to your doctor about prevention. Comprehensive information about diabetes prevention and treatment is available via the ADA’s website; always consult your physician to determine what works for you.
“Every person’s life is important, so please take care of your body,” Mackenzie Johnson said. “I wouldn’t wish what we’re going through on anyone.”
Ed. note, Nov. 18, 2013: Comments to this story and its post on Facebook raise questions about a medical prescription Johnson was given as contributory to his condition. In interviews preparing for this story, a possible issue regarding a steroid prescription contributing to Todd Johnson’s advanced diabetes was raised. However, in his own interview with St. George News, Johnson chose not to raise it. It was his choice to address his own lifestyle choices, for whatever benefit that might offer.
Any issue between him and any medical or pharmaceutical professionals involved, is beyond the scope and purpose of this report which sought to share the story of a family struggling with financial burdens arising from the patriarch’s battle with diabetes.
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