12/3/2015
Lea DeLaria interview: Blame T2D on My Genes

Lea DeLaria plays conniving inmate Big Boo on the hit television show “Orange is the New Black,” but in her life away from the cameras, she is a diligent and motivated patient at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center—and a budding advocate for type 2 diabetes (T2D) patients everywhere.

Diabetes runs in Lea’s family. Her mother had T2D and her brother has T2D.  Yet, it came as a shock one September day in 2014 when a routine blood test revealed a blood sugar greater than 300 mg/dl. Lea had gone to her doctor for a pain in her abdomen and left with the news that she had T2D.

“This was a lesson that I learned—T2D can hit you at any time,” Lea said. “I thought I’m ok, that I made it. I’m almost 60. I’m not gonna get this! Well, I got it.”

“I was nervous, I was scared,” she added after learning of her diagnosis. As an actor with an incredibly hectic work and travel schedule, she worried about keeping pace with diabetes. She worried about the stigma. She worried about food.

“I’m Italian-- I love pasta, I like to eat and I thought, ‘my life is over.’”

Thankfully, she said, she found the Berrie Center, where her fears were assuaged.

Under the care of Robin Goland, MD, J. Merrill Eastman Professor of Clinical Diabetes and Berrie Center Co-Director and the Berrie Center diabetes team, Lea began diabetes treatment that would quickly get her back on her feet.

“Lea came to our diabetes center with an openness and a willingness to learn and understand more about diabetes,” said Patricia Kringas, RN, CDE, head of diabetes education and lead T2D research coordinator at the Berrie Center (whom Lea refers to as Saint Pat or Nurse Pat). “She attended the diabetes education classes and met with me as her diabetes educator.  Lea was quick to institute some lifestyle changes and nutrition suggestions and had excellent results.”  

“It’s a learning process,” Lea said. One that has her full commitment.

Lea also enrolled in a clinical trial at the Berrie Center,  the GRADE (Glycemia Reduction Approaches in Diabetes) study, which compares four FDA-approved diabetes drugs in combination with metformin, the most common first-line medication for treating T2D, in order to determine for the future which should be the next drug used in clinical practice. Dr. Goland is the principal investigator of the Columbia University site of this multi-center NIH T2D study and Nurse Pat is the study coordinator.

“I'm completely happy to be involved in the Grade study,” Lea said. “Diabetes runs in my family and any help we can get from science will only make life better for not only my people, but millions worldwide.” 

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While everyone has their own approach to living with T2D, Lea’s can best be described as the result of her strict Catholic school upbringing (“Gotta listen to Nurse Pat!”), and her stand-up comic roots: “If I eat a piece of potato I’ll go, ‘oh there goes my eye!’ I try to be funny with it. If a waiter asks if I want to see the dessert menu, I’ll say, ‘How dare you?! I have diabetes!’”

The fact that Lea can now laugh about her diabetes is a testament to the support she receives from her Berrie Center diabetes team, her family, friends and “fabulous fiancée” Chelsea Fairless who is always looking over her shoulder.

Lea’s ability to put diabetes into perspective has also been a driving factor in her success. “I started to grasp that as long as I took my medication, as long as I exercised and as long as I was careful about carbohydrate intake, it was all going to be good,” she said. “And I try not to cheat. But we’re all humans. On my birthday I had a piece of cake! I was fine.”

Lea is now making it her mission to be the face of T2D.

She recently appeared on The Wendy Williams Show where she addressed tabloid reports about her weight loss (due to healthy changes in her diet) and about the stigma associated with T2D. She wants the world to know having diabetes is not something to be ashamed of or taken lightly.

“It is has little to do with you and everything to do with your genes,” she said. “People need to hear the main factor is heredity. That’s why there’s a stigma. No one really talks about what’s up. No one has been the face of diabetes.”

By sharing her story and encouraging others to do the same Lea is using her public platform to raise awareness of T2D and the many treatment options.

“I don’t walk through life with blinders on. I like to see things; I like to notice things; I like to be in life. If this is what I have to do, this is what I have to do. It’s not helping anything to just whine about it or not do what Nurse Pat says.”

Could you be a candidate for the GRADE T2D study? If you have had T2D for less than 10 years, contact Nurse Pat at mpk40@columbia.edu or 212-851-5489 to find out. Tell her that Lea DeLaria sent you!