ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons had no idea he had developed diabetes until a debilitating headache sent him to head straight to his family doctor.
“One morning I just woke up with an unbearable headache,” he said. “I went to my doctor’s office and was to the point where I literally could not even drive. I told them what what going on, that I needed to be seen. But they were getting ready to go to lunch.”
Clemmons said they asked if he could come back, and that’s when he realized how bad a situation he was in.
“I told them, ‘No. My head is splitting, my vision is blurry and I can’t drive,” Clemmons said. “They pretty much canceled their lunch break and took me through the paces and that’s when my doctor told me my blood sugar was high at that particular moment. That came without any warning. I had no warning up until that day. I knew I was overweight at the time, but everything else was fine.”
Diabetes is a disease that sneaks its way into the lives of millions of people in the United States each year and leads to serious health complications when left untreated. It can cause blurred vision that can end in total blindness, damage and loss of extremities due to circulatory deficiencies, kidney and heart failure and even death.
Clemmons said he’d taken his annual physical every year, and everything seemed normal. He felt fine and in good shape for a 400-pound man. Looking at him today, an observer would never guess the sheriff once battled a serious weight problem.
“My doctor started treating me that very day,” he said. “He sat me down and told me there were things I needed to do such as taking care of myself physically and dealing with eating habits with the job I have.”
Clemmons explained that in law enforcement, it is easy to develop poor and dangerous eating habits since officers are always on the go and their meals frequently interrupted by emergency calls. The temptation to reach for fast but unhealthy foods is always there, though the sheriff made a point of not speaking for other law enforcement officers.
“We really don’t have a lot of time to really sit down and enjoy our meal,” he said. “We can be in the middle of our meal and we can get a call in a moment’s notice and we have to leave. An example is I would go to work every day skipping breakfast, skipping lunch, then having a big meal at night and then I’m in the bed. That’s not good. You need to have those three meals every day to do what you need to do.”
Clemmons said he began by joining the fitness center at FirstHealth Richmond Memorial and making sure he ate breakfast and worked out at least a little each day.
“People will tell you breakfast is the most essential meal of the day,” he said. “And it really is. It gets your metabolism running and the reason for the obesity with me was because of the lack of metabolic activity. My body was always thinking, ‘Well, he’s not hungry.’ So it wasn’t acting like it should. I never did any diet pills. No surgery. Nothing like that. Mine was just working out, eating properly and maintaining.”
Clemmons said the thing to remember about treating diabetes and related ailments is that healthy living can combat disease in ways that dieting alone cannot.
“You’re not dieting. What you’re doing is called healthy living, it’s not called dieting,” he said. “People shouldn’t diet. Because when you diet you’re only looking for a percentage of weight that you want to lose and then after you do that, where are you? If you have no plan or no idea how to maintain, that’s where that yo-yo starts to come in — one time you’re down and next time you’re up and you’re constantly moving back and forth.”
Clemmons said his weight has remained consistent over the last three years. He’s dropped the weight and works out most days of the week at the fitness center, and on days when his schedule prohibits that, he tries to walk or do other physical activities to keep his heart rate and metabolism within healthy parameters.
“For me, understanding the role that diabetes plays, even though you get to that point where you think you’re in control and you can maintain and live healthier, it’s not going away,” he said. “People will tell you, ‘Well, I had diabetes.’ No. You didn’t have diabetes. You still have diabetes and at any given time it can be either maintained or controlled or it can get out of hand.”
Clemmons reminds people that once they have diabetes, it will always be there “lurking” in the background.
“It never goes away,” he said. “And some days you’re going to feel the effects of it. It’s not like I walk around and every day is a great day. Every day I’m breathing is a great day, but there are some days that I feel a little rundown and I check my sugar and say, ‘OK, that’s what’s going on.’
“Once you’ve been diagnosed with it, it doesn’t run away from you. It’s like ‘Tag, you’re it.’ You’re still it. So the thing is do you control it with a goal of trying to avoid insulin and dialysis? That’s the key.”
According to Clemmons, anyone who is diagnosed should also go see an endocrinologist and make sure they are being treated by appropriate specialists who know exactly what’s happening with their bodies.
“My physician is on point and is taking great care of me,” he said. “But his attitude was stern. He looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to live or die?’ Plain and simple. And I said, “Doc, I want to live.”
He admitted that in the early stages of his treatment, he was stubborn about several of the lifestyle changes that the management of his disease required.
“But then, you see the effects of not listening,” Clemmons said. “It’s not like Mom and Dad telling you to keep your hand out of the cookie jar. That’s one thing — but when you’re hearing the doctor telling you how to live in good health, a lot of people don’t listen. They abuse the opportunity, they abuse their own bodies. And the body will tell on you. So what I try to do is take care of myself to best of my ability. But diabetes is very serious and people need to take it seriously.”
Clemmons said he finds it disturbing that more and more children are being diagnosed with the disease and blames a lifestyle lived primarily indoors with very little physical exercise and poor nutritional choices.
“People who have never had a family member with diabetes are getting it,” he said. “Our children are getting it. It’s happening more and more often. Think about it — everything is super-sized and greased up and cheap and easy. We’ve gotten away from those Sunday evening meals with our families. You go home now and your kid’s got a McDonald’s bag tucked under his arm and going into the bedroom and playing video games or watching TV. They’re not outside playing anymore, not going outside and getting dirty or doing the things we did.”
Clemmons said America may be the most overweight nation in the world, and that its current lifestyle isn’t good for people’s health. He said our selection of available foods and lack of exercise only makes matters worse.
“It’s important to work out and exercise 30 minutes every day,” he said. “Even if it’s just a walk. Even though you may not want to get up off that couch — get out and take that walk. Walk out in the sun and get some of that vitamin D. Stay away from those sweets and sugary beverages and get back to the basics. Eat local produce and drink more water. For me it’s worked and I lost the weight. I used to weigh close to 400 pounds.”
Clemmons said he’s kept at a consistent weight for the past four years.
“Every time someone asks me how I did it, I tell them I followed my doctor’s advice and lost the weight,” he said. “That was half a person I lost, and every day when I back my car out of the yard, I run over that other person I dropped off. And I just say that I really don’t want want to go back there because when you’re that heavy, you have to find a special place to buy clothes and shoes.”
He said the bigger the clothes are, the more they cost. He also said you never feel you look good in them, and that driving at the size he once was caused him no end of grief.
“Trying to stuff yourself into a vehicle,” he said. “I remember even when I was driving a big truck, my stomach would touch the steering wheel. And now I’m so far back I have to pull myself forward. And it’s a good feeling when you have to pull your seat up to get close enough to the steering wheel.”
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.