- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

An estimated 20 million Americans have the disease, but more than 6 million of them don’t even know it. The overwhelming majority of adults living with it — 13 million — are white, but blacks, for all practical purposes, are nearly twice as likely to get it. And the good and bad news is that 1.5 million new cases were diagnosed just last year.

The disease is diabetes.

Like eye and hair color, Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia, it is a disease that clings to generations of genes. Like Alzheimer’s, it can be vicious, threatening to snatch your eyesight, your legs and arms and fingers, and it can wreak havoc on your kidneys, your heart and your brain.

And like any other chronic disease, it can steal the life of a loved one.

Award-winning songbird Patti Austin knows all too well. Her dad had diabetes, and had to have an amputation. Almost all went well — except that after the surgery he developed an embolism. Now, he’s gone on to glory. When her mom had a stroke a few years back, the message became more profound for the obese Patti. “You can only be big for so long. Eventually, the weight catches up with you.”

For Patti, that was age 45. While her blood pressure wasn’t cause for concern, beingdiagnosed with diabetes and high cholesterol was. “I cannot stress enough: We need to eat healthier. We need to get up from in front of the ‘idiot box’ and move,” she told me in an interview at the White House on Monday.

Patti was in town for the annual Black Music Month celebration, performing for President Bush, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, UCLA and NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, civil rights giant Dorothy Height and other fans. “Everything is about portion. We eat like lunatics here [in America],” Patti said, looking as marvelous as ever after losing more than 120 pounds.

The celebration honored America’s unique heritage of jazz and blues, and who better to represent than Patti, the King of the Blues, B.B. King, and the No. 1 love in his life since 1949, Lucille the Guitar. “B,” as those closest to the guitarist/writer call him, plucks a few strings in a TV commercial that promotes diabetes management, and he doesn’t do it for the money.

B.B. King has diabetes, too. Diagnosed a decade ago, B.B. hasn’t let diabetes stop him from performing, but having to prick his fingers to determine his blood-glucose level is menacing for a guitarist, and more so when you’re the best of the best. That’s B.B.

The former cotton-picker knows that diabetes, even when it is under control, could silence him and Lucille. So, in addition to listening to his thoughts on the state of music today (and being on the receiving end of his kiss to my left cheek), I asked B.B. if he has a message about diabetes. “Get a checkup. Some of us take care of our automobiles better than ourselves … Like seeing signs on the highway that say slow down. Slow down. Get yourself checked out. Check — especially if you have diabetes in the family.”

Now 80 years old, the Mississippi native who has been performing since he was a buck singing gospel on the streets, sits down when on stages large and small, like the one in the East Room of the White House.

You should have seen President Bush bopping to the strums by B.B. and the rhythms from his band. The president knows good music when he hears it, and in remarks prior to the performances on Monday Mr. Bush was spot on when he said, Patti, B.B. and Irving Mayfield, whose horn wails jazz, are artists “whose works have inspired our nation.”

For me, the president wasn’t merely speaking about musical messengers, though. Indeed, I became teary-eyed as Patti sang Ella, (Fitzgerald, for the unenlightened) and B.B. and the band kicked his signature songs. Their musical messages, as I mentioned, moved the president. Their performances were indeed awesome.

But for me it was the medical messages the two music giants intimated. “Slow down.” Get “checked.” Stop eating like a “lunatic.” Put down the remote and walk away from the “idiot box” (or the TV if you’re of other generations). As Patti told me, “walk or dance.” The important thing is to “eat healthy and move.”

Messages. Music. Patti and Ella. B.B. and Lucille. Blues and jazz. Frank talk about the dangers of diabetes. What a powerful combination.

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