Diabetes is not new, but in recent years the number of people being diagnosed has risen significantly. It now affects more than 7 percent of the world. As its prevalence has grown, so has our knowledge about this chronic disease and our ability to manage it. But, if left untreated, the ramifications can be devastating.
Virginia Peragallo-Dittko, currently the executive director of the Diabetes and Obesity Institute at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, has seen this once little-understood chronic disease become the epidemic it is today. Virginia began her medical career as a staff nurse in upstate New York in the ’70s. It was a time when patients with diabetes were being admitted to the hospital with problems that she thought could have been prevented if they just had more information and education. Recognizing this need, Virginia dedicated her career to helping those affected by diabetes.
“Years ago you could hand over a booklet, and that was your educational information for the patient,” Virginia recalls. She formed a diabetes education committee to spread the facts about this condition. “At that time, there were only 13 diabetes educators across the country.There was a saying: ‘Everything I learned about diabetes, I learned at Bingo.’”
Since 1985, when she became director of Winthrop’s Diabetes Education Center, she’s helped their center attain the high level of excellence that it is renowned for today. When she started the program, she had to overcome many hurdles. “Diabetes at that time still needed to become recognized,” she says. “To be reimbursed by insurance, diabetes educators had to establish credentials for certification with the national certification board, and education programs had to meet national standards in order to become accredited.
“Winthrop’s program was the first to be accredited in New York State,” she says proudly. In fact, their program was so well executed that many programs have been modeled on its structure and with Virginia’s guidance has established itself as the regional leader in diabetes care.
“We are raising the bar, both clinically and in research, and there’s not a minute to waste,” Virginia says.
Every five seconds someone in the world is being diagnosed with diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three children born in the year 2000 will have diabetes by the time they reach the age of 20. For Hispanic children the rate is one in two. These are very alarming statistics and show the need for more education on how to control the disease.
“Ninety-nine percent of the treatment is through self-management,” she says, and because of that the Diabetes Education Center offers free support groups to any child on Long Island. “We respect everyone’s uniqueness and understand that they all have different needs.”
Virginia explains there is a genetic component to the disease.
“You can’t eat yourself into diabetes,” Virginia says, disproving a popular misconception.
Diabetes has two types.
Type 1 is commonly known as juvenile diabetes because it typically strikes children or young adults. It is insulin-dependent, and can be treated by insulin injections or with an insulin pump.
Type 2 affects the vast majority of those diagnosed with the disease. It occurs when the body produces insulin but the cells don’t use it properly. These cases typically affect adults, especially those who are obese or have a family history of the disease.
As the Executive Director of the Diabetes and Obesity Institute, Virginia’s work with the diabetes population crosses over into almost every other department at the hospital, from primary care to maternal fetal medicine, cardiac surgery, and geriatrics, to name a few.
“There’s so much going on,” she says about the impact that diabetes has on every medical procedure. “I tell the doctors and nurses that no matter what speciality you practice, you’re going to work with patients with diabetes, and it’s going to complicate their care.”
Virginia also oversees the obesity services at Winthrop.
“We are learning a lot now [about the disease],” she says, “and it’s not always calories in and calories out. There are viral causes, infection and not getting enough sleep.”
Recently some new and exciting research findings have been released. According to a study published in Archives of Surgery, 85 percent of obesity type-2 diabetes patients who had bariatric surgery were able to go off their medications within two years of the procedure, thereby saving an average of $4,500 in annual health care costs. Researchers believe that the surgery affects hormones secreted by the stomach to help regulate insulin and other hormones. These findings could lead to future nonsurgical obesity treatments.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Virginia says. “We are learning so much.”
Winthrop’s Diabetes Center has recently launched an innovative pre-diabetes program underwritten by the Mineola Lions Club.
“Many people say it’s the best $100 they’ve ever spent,” she says.
Virginia will leave no stone unturned in her quest to improve diabetes care. Her hard work has been nationally recognized. She has the distinction of being the only person in the country to receive two prestigious national awards from the diabetic community, being named Diabetic Educator of the Year by the American Association of Diabetic Educators and Outstanding Educator by the American Diabetic Association.
Virginia is quick to point out that the success of Winthrop’s diabetes program is due to the entire staff at the medical facility.
“This program is not just me—it’s all of us,” she says.
But to her it’s a calling.
“I am always going to be here as a diabetic educator,” Virginia vows.
She will continue to advocate for new and better programs for treating the disease. So far, health insurance only pays for treatment after diabetes is diagnosed. But Virginia wants insurance to pay for its prevention. She is working diligently to change the way the medical community, insurance companies and the public view the disease.
“We need to get our foot in the door [of the insurance companies], and the hope is that we will have pre-diabetic reimbursement in the future,” she says.
Over the course of her career Virginia’s management has impacted thousands of people, helping patients with diabetes and their families live a healthier and longer life.
“I have had the privilege of working with many people with diabetes and seeing how well they manage their lives,” Virginia says. “I am always humbled by their strength.”
For more information about the Diabetes Education Center call 516-663-6976.
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