Mother driven to pursue cure for 'silent killer' Diabetes: Since her son was diagnosed with the disease, Margaret Himelfarb has devoted herself to supporting research. Her latest tactic is a campaign for a postal stamp.

November 29, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Michael R. Himelfarb seemed a healthy child until age 4, when be became lethargic and began drinking more water and urinating more than usual.

Tests confirmed the early warning signs: He had juvenile diabetes.

At that moment, in January 1981, Margaret Conn Himelfarb learned that her son's life expectancy might be reduced by as much as a third. "My predictable, comfortable world turned upside down, and I felt powerless," she says.

She began reading and learning, becoming an informed and obsessed fighter for a cause -- trying to find a cure for diabetes. After 17 years of advocacy, she recently received the 1997 Humanitarian Award from the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation Inc., Maryland chapter, which she helped found.

"I am driven," says Margaret Himelfarb, 53, of Homeland in North Baltimore. "I think diabetes is curable. The researchers do, too. The work is a quasi-career, unpaid, something I cannot not do. Thirty hours a week, sometimes 60 or 70."

Called "the silent killer" because symptoms often go unnoticed or untreated, the disease strikes one in 17 Americans and kills 500 daily. Or, as she puts it, "a jumbo jet full every day."

Diabetes is a metabolic disorder involving the hormone insulin that has sobering consequences: increased likelihood of heart disease, hypertension, blindness, amputations, strokes, kidney failure and more.

Once diabetes is contracted, it doesn't go away.

Michael, 21, is a senior at Princeton University, where he recently performed the role of the director in "A Chorus Line." Daily, he monitors his carbohydrate intake, tests his blood-sugar levels four to six times, carries a satchel with glucose tablets, gel and monitor for emergencies, and wears a beeper-sized pump with a needle inserted into his stomach that controls his insulin.

"I consider myself fortunate," he says. "I have an incredibly helpful family. Mother amazingly dedicated, a perfectionist. I want to live a long life, be a teacher.

"I can never remember not being a diabetic. It's an extremely personal disease, affects dating, sex, alcohol, exercise, everything you do."

His mother has lobbied, planned, reviewed grant requests and spoken across the country since joining the board and executive committee of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation International in 1993. At the Maryland chapter, she has helped raise more than $3 million since the early 1980s.

"Lots of phone calls and cold dinners," she says. "Only Michael has it in our family, but it's a family disease. Richard, my husband, is very involved. Elizabeth, my daughter, is very supportive."

In her latest burst of activity, she has proposed creation of a postage stamp for diabetes. With mailings and speeches pushing a national signature drive, she argues that a stamp would raise awareness and help find a cure.

Diabetes "kills more than AIDS or breast cancer, and they have stamps," she says in asking people to write to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee at the U.S. Postal Service in Washington.

"Margaret is one of the most hard-working, intelligent, persistent people I've ever known," said Joel E. Weiner, a diabetes foundation chapter board member, former chapter president and father of a diabetic daughter.

"She has taken the chapter from a ma-and-pa operation to one that routinely raises a half a million or a million. She can communicate the logic of diabetes research to significant givers as no one else. She raised about $1.7 million in one effort."

Margaret Himelfarb, who has testified before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, serves on panels that decide multimillion dollar requests for research grants and partnerships. (The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation's lay review committee approved $28 million in allocations this year.)

Juvenile diabetes, affecting 5 percent to 10 percent of diabetics, is Type One. Its risk factors -- genetic, environmental and autoimmune -- are not well known. Autoimmune here means the body attacks its own tissue and destroys insulin-producing cells.

The word "juvenile" was used originally because people younger than 30 are more likely to get this kind of diabetes, now often called Type One or insulin-dependent.

Type Two may account for 90 percent to 95 percent of diagnosed cases. Risk factors are old age, obesity, family history of diabetes, inactivity and ethnicity. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and some Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders face higher risk. In Type Two, the body doesn't produce enough insulin or it is not used effectively.

Michael's case was typical. For one thing, it remains unclear why he became diabetic. The family had no history of the disease.

Michael was hospitalized for a week. Many shots of insulin stabilized his blood sugar. At age 7, he began injecting himself: four shots daily in the thigh, arm, buttocks and abdomen. He had six or more daily blood tests. Three years ago, the pump replaced the injections.

At age 13, he began taking charge of his own care. "It's most important for a child to be independent," said his mother.

Margaret is on the road for research and awareness of all types of diabetes. She recognizes that Americans are reluctant to talk about matters such as 50,000 limbs being amputated each year because of diabetes.

"But diabetes demands our attention," she says. "It is a disease that is growing, and it should be a national priority."

She recites the toll: At least 250,000 Marylanders have diabetes; each year, there are more than 46,000 hospitalizations and at least 4,000 people die of it; diabetes and its complications cost $138 billion a year in the United States.

She sees hope in various avenues of research. "This is one tough disease but we are closer to a cure," she says.

Information: the foundation's local chapter, 410-356-4555, or the international foundation, 800-JDF-CURE. The address for the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee is c/o Stamp Management, U.S. Postal Service, 475 L'Enfant Plaza S.W., Room 4474EB, Washington, D.C. 21260-6756.

Pub Date: 11/29/97

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