Diabetic Takes His Best Shots

September 24, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

After growing up with a diabetic father, Tom Parks knew enough about diabetes to recognize the symptoms even before he was diagnosed six years ago.

But it happened while he was on the road with his comedy act.

And it seemed so unfair: "Wait!" he told the doctor. "I'm in Missouri and I've got diabetes?"

The 41-year-old comedian, co-anchor of "Not Necessarily the News" on HBO, was in Baltimore last week for the 18th annual meeting of the American Association of Diabetes Educators. A spokesman for the manufacturer of a blood-sugar measuring device, as well as a member of the board of the American Diabetes Association, he says he wants to show that there is, indeed, life after diabetes.

Mr. Parks doesn't refer to diabetes in his stand-up routines; that would be like "using" it, he said.

But when he's talking to people involved with diabetes, and in the instructional video called "Diabetes: A Positive Approach" -- which he wrote and stars in -- he jabs his needles straight at the funny bone.

"With diabetes there are so many demands, so many things to attend to, if you can have a sense of humor, it greases the wheels," Mr. Parks said in an interview peppered with wisecracks and wisdom.

Although his jokes may be unique, Mr. Parks isn't alone in his claim that humor helps you get past the sticking points of diabetes: Baltimore psychologist Richard Rubin is one of the authors of a book titled "Psyching Out Diabetes," which is to be published next fall. And Tom Parks is writing the introduction.

But, he hastened to point out: It's not that chronic disease is funny. It isn't.

There are two kinds of diabetes -- a disease in which the body cannot utilize glucose, or sugar in the bloodstream. In Type I, sometimes called juvenile onset diabetes, because it most often appears in childhood, the pancreas stops producing insulin, the hormone that makes the cells accept the glucose.

In Type II, the cells become unresponsive to the body's insulin. Both kinds have a genetic component, and both produce symptoms such as frequent urination, excessive thirst, loss of energy, weight loss, hunger, nausea and irritability.

Like his father, Mr. Parks has Type I diabetes. Before he was diagnosed, he said, he thought he understood the possible long-term complications -- death, blindness, heart disease, kidney failure, gangrene. But when he found impotence on the list, he got a shock.

"Impotence?" he cried. "Oh, no! I was just getting good at this."

And then his mother tried to assure him, from experience, that he shouldn't worry.

"Which was more than I wanted to know about my parents," he says now.

But what he also knows about his parents is that they've lived normally, that his dad, now in his 70s, has always been like everyone else's dad, except that he's had to take insulin shots, and that the health-promoting lifestyle he's followed, because of the diabetes, has left him "healthy as a horse; he looks 10 years younger than his friends."

The younger Mr. Parks looks hearty, too, with a round face and slim body, and the hint of a dimple when he smiles. His own health-promoting lifestyle has to be managed along with a career on the go. Despite his TV show and the feature film he's just completed -- he's in "Ladybugs" with Rodney Dangerfield, due for April release -- he's away from his Los Angeles home 250 days a year.

Still, he manages to exercise daily with a 2-mile walk and to follow a carefully controlled diet even when he eats in restaurants. He also checks his glucose level four times a day, with a finger-prick blood sample that's analyzed by his small, portable glucose meter, and he injects himself with insulin twice a day.

"I test in public, and I shoot up in public," he said. "If I've got to suffer, everyone has to suffer."

He, however, gets a pay-off: "If the blood-sugar is too high, and you change something [insulin dose, diet or exercise], and it comes down, you've taken control of your diabetes. That's positive reinforcement," he said. "It raises my spirits. I get on a roll, and suddenly I'm doing real well. And nothing feels better than that."

For information about "Diabetes: A Positive Approach" call the American Diabetes Association Maryland affiliate, 486-5515.

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