Battling Diabetes: Martha Quintana coaches people to see beyond diabetes

Martha Quintana coaches people with diabetes back to health. Photo credit: J. R. Pittman
Martha Quintana coaches people with diabetes back to health. Photo credit: J. R. Pittman

Armed with the hard facts about sugar, fat and the benefit of regular exercise, Watsonville nurse and diabetes educator Martha Quintana is on the front lines of the diabetes epidemic that threatens one in three people and about half the Hispanic population in the U.S.

On a table near her office in the Diabetes Health Center near Watsonville Hospital, she sets out the tools of her trade: a five-pound glob of fake fat, replicas of artery plaque build-up, vials of oil, a plate depicting normal serving sizes and a bowl of cheery plastic vegetables—the not-so-enticing fare of moderation. Perhaps the veteran educator’s biggest arsenal is her ability to encourage patients to renew their commitment to try another day.

“A lot of them feel frustrated,” says Quintana who helped develop the diabetes program in 1998. When she’s not with patients, she takes her “traveling show” to schools, local employers and health fairs and works to improve education countywide.

Previously she worked 15 years as a nurse at Watsonville Hospital where she routinely saw the impact of diabetes firsthand such as open sores, heart disease, kidney failure and eye damage. The most common type of diabetes, known as Type II, has been linked to excessive body weight and too little exercise.

Every day, Quintana explains the basics. She holds up heavy plastic bags of white sugar to show new patients what it really means to order a large soda. For others struggling to improve their diets on limited incomes and stick with exercise routines after long workdays in the fields, she often hears confessions. Patients don’t always have the resources to buy medication and glucose monitoring strips.

“I try to help them feel at ease,” Quintana says. “A lot of them feel hopeless or scared. Some of them are angry. They feel that I’m going to take everything away and they’re going to have to eat grass and twigs.”

Quintana warns them about symptoms that may sneak up on them as forgetfulness, fatigue, appetite loss and numbness. Sometimes people feel a little worse before their body systems stabilize.

“Diabetes isn’t just about taking your pills and going on a diet,” says Quintana. “Stress affects our health and weight a lot. When they’re working from sunup to sundown and I tell them they have to exercise, they look at me like I’m crazy.”

But, Quintana, who spent a summer picking strawberries when she was younger, urges them to make small adjustments. Many days she battles a level of fatalism. People say, “I’m going to die anyway.” She says she tries to empower them to make their own decisions.

Some patients simply don’t change their ways.

“There are days when I go, ‘What am I doing?’” Quintana admits. “Those days I feel like I’m missing something and not picking up on what I need to do to help them.” She tries to make them feel better. “They may have slipped, but they leave here feeling more hopeful. I get a lot of hugs.”


This article was published in Santa Cruz Woman, a special section of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.


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