By Peg Aloi
Blood Sugar Rising deals with difficult subject matter, but steel yourself to view this engaging and educational look at a growing public health crisis.
If you are someone who has family members with diabetes, it may prove difficult to watch the new PBS special Blood Sugar Rising: America’s Hidden Diabetes Epidemic. But watch it you should. (Film can be screened here.) Even if no one close to you suffers from the disease, this film makes it clear that it will only be a matter of time before that changes. The documentary is aptly named: it chronicles and details the increasing growth of an affliction that, as recently as 150 years ago, was classified as extremely rare. Blood Sugar Rising also dispels misinformation about diabetes, including the belief that Type 2 diabetes is growing at a faster rate than Type 1. In fact, both types are seeing exponential increases in America.
I admit it took me some effort to finally bring myself to take this in. I have three immediate family members with Type 1 diabetes. And it is important for me to point out that, despite the fact that diabetes often has a genetic component, there were no instances in my mother’s family before her diagnosis. At the age of 35 she was told that she had Type 1 “adult onset juvenile diabetes” (as it was called at the time). My niece was diagnosed a few years later, followed by my brother (her father) at the age of 35, just like my mother. None of these people were overweight. Type 1 diabetes is when the pancreas stops producing insulin; Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels healthy. Blood Sugar Rising explains the disease’s specifics in an accessible and helpful fashion along with outlining the risk groups people fall into.
In my mother’s case, it seems to have been an autoimmune cluster; 10 years earlier she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This autoimmune disease had been in remission for at least a decade. However, when the MS returned both afflictions took a toll on my mother’s mobility, as well as her ability to continue being the energetic, hard-working powerhouse I had known during my childhood. Blood Sugar Rising spotlights the specific health issues and dangers my mother faced: insulin shock, diabetic coma, slow healing and, ultimately, amputation. Be forewarned: this documentary is not for the faint of heart.
But it contains crucial information. This health crisis now stands poised to affect one in 10 people in the U.S. The number of sufferers are increasing every day, so it behooves us to learn what we can and decrease our own risks of developing it. In addition to outlining the intimidating scope of this public health emergency, Blood Sugar Rising looks at the risks posed by social conditions and lifestyle habits. Like any good medical documentary, there is an effective balance of statistical information, expert testimonials, and patient/caregiver narratives.
There’s Monteil, a young African-American musician who finds himself in danger of foot amputation. He struggles — with dogged discipline — to stay off his foot as he manages his diabetes. We also witness the fight of Monteil’s doctor, who has spent his career helping communities of color deal with the obstacles erected by inequality to their healthcare. There’s Nicole, a young white woman who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child. She became so fearful of low blood sugar that she mismanaged her illness. She now suffers from kidney failure and vision problems and is awaiting a transplant. Her use of social media activity is informing a wider audience of her troubled experiences.
There’s a man who, inspired by his infant son’s struggle with diabetes, invents a device that tests blood sugar safely and effectively. There’s a woman who creates a community garden to help educate poor urban families stuck in a “food desert.” Unable to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables in their low income neighborhood, they are forced to rely on the kind of high-sugar “junk” foods — sold in nearby “quickie” markets — that exacerbate susceptibility to diabetes.
There’s a family whose 26-year-old diabetic son passed away from a lack of insulin. After he had been released from his parents’ health insurance coverage he could not afford the $1300 cost of his medication. He told no one, rationed what he could pay for, and died. The rising price of insulin is an enormous problem, albeit one that could be easily solved. Insulin’s increasing inaccessibility to the poor is one the most worrisome aspects of a burgeoning medical calamity that will end up affecting, in one way or another, every American. Blood Sugar Rising deals with difficult subject matter, but steel yourself to view this engaging and educational look at a growing public health catastrophe.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.