By Minnie Jones, 433rd Airlift Wing
/ Published November 27, 2019
Chief Master Sgt. Pedro Saenz, a 433rd Aircraft Maintenance superintendent, sits at the desk in his office with his son’s photo in the foreground and his son’s favorite stuffed animal, the sloth in the background. On Aug. 6, 2019 Saenz received a call that no parent wants to accept; that his son had succumbed to diabetes, after a 10-year battle with the disease. Saenz is now an advocate and a voice to his Airmen regarding good self-management of diabetes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Minnie Jones)
With his finisher medals in the background, Master Sgt. Raul Borrego, 433rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron aircraft mechanic supervisor, is one of the Reserve Citizen Airmen that Chief Master Sgt. Pedro Saenz, 433rd Aircraft Maintenance superintendent, provides with support regarding his battle with Type 2 diabetes. Borrego was first diagnosed with prediabetes in 2016, and then later with diabetes when his reading ballooned to 12.0. That wake-up call and through the care of his doctor, his HbA1c is now at 6.1 percent. And he is still serving. (U.S. Air Force photo by Minnie Jones)
On Aug. 6, Chief Master Sgt. Pedro Saenz, a 433rd Aircraft Maintenance superintendent, received a call no parent wants to accept. The caller said, “Are you, Mr. Saenz? Is Gabriel Saenz your son?” “We need you to come to Freer, Texas, as soon as possible.” Later, he found out his son had succumbed to diabetes.
As he recalls that day, for just a moment, his eyes began to fill with water, but as he continues to reminisce about his son’s battle with the disease, from the day, they discovered he was diagnosed at the age of 10, until his untimely death, his tears begin to wane.
According to Medical News Today, diabetes is in the top 10 of leading causes of death in the United States. And one of the biggest threats to people, who have this condition, is uncontrolled blood-glucose levels. If a person’s glucose level gets too high, it can lead to sudden death. Diabetic ketoacidosis is one of the most severe complications of diabetes. Symptoms can catch you off guard, coming on in just 24 hours or less. Without diabetic ketoacidosis treatment, a person can fall into a coma and die.
It is hard to believe that both good and bad can come from a loved one’s death. But in Saenz’ case, the good that came from this experience, was that he has become an advocate and a voice regarding good self-management of diabetes.
Ironically, he has two Reserve Citizen Airmen serving under him who have Type 2 diabetes.
After his 26-year-old son’s death, it made him take a more serious look at them. He knows first-hand how important it is to manage your diabetes. He believes poor management of this disease was the cause of his son’s death.
“Regarding my son, when he lived with us, we reminded him regularly to watch his sugar levels. However, once he got older and began living apart from us, it became more difficult for him to manage his A1c on his own. We would check up on him regularly, but he would say, ‘Everything is okay, dad,’ even though his blood sugar was super high. At times, it was so high that he was admitted to the hospital on several occasions,” said Saenz.
Diabetes is stealth disease in the way it destroys the body, according to a NY times.com article, “Affecting everything from hearing and vision, to sexual function, mental health, and sleep. It is the leading cause of blindness, amputations, and kidney failure, and it can triple the risk of a heart attack and stroke.
Servicemembers who develop diabetes while serving in the military is not always an indication that their career may be over. According to a Military Medicine article, “Effect of Military Development on Diabetes Mellitus in Air Force Personnel,” estimates that nearly 3 percent of U.S. servicemembers have diabetes.
However, servicemembers that do develop diabetes, and cannot maintain a Hemoglobin A1c level below 7 percent without the aid of medication, will be referred to a medical evaluation board, which will assess their medical fitness and will make recommendations about follow-up care.
According to Diabetes Self-Management, “Several hundred service members (out of more than 1.4 million currently serving) are diagnosed with diabetes each year. The continuing rise of diabetes in the U.S. threatens to affect even those whose occupations require physical ﬁtness. Servicemembers that develop Type 2 diabetes, on average is 35.2-years old, with a serving length on an average of 13.6 years in the military.”
Master Sgt. Raul Borrego, 433rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, aircraft mechanic supervisor, is one of those Airmen, Saenz supervises. He was diagnosed with prediabetes in 2016 at the age of 58, with an HbA1c level of 6.4. When he heard of the diagnosis, his first reaction was denial. It is not uncommon that when some people or initially diagnoses with diabetes, they tend to deny the prognosis
“I became a recreational runner in 2012,” said Borrego. “I mostly ran for fun and the finisher medals. Running was something fun to do on weekends and maybe to get some exercise. So in 2016, during a routine doctor’s visit, to my primary-care physician, she hit me with the shocking news that I was borderline diabetic. I was in shock; I couldn’t believe that I was diabetic. I was in denial at first, and I didn’t take it seriously. And oh, did I paid for it.”
“After the first six months, my A1c level shot through the roof from 6.4 to around 8.0,” he said. “A year after the initial diagnosis, my A1c shot up close to 12.” That reading got him referred to the medical evaluation board.
“After my year in denial and being put on a 'no pay, no points' status, I decided to get serious about my running and an exercise regimen,” Borrego said. “I increased my running from two to three races every six months to two to three races a month, in addition to running during the unit training assemblies. Through my doctor’s direction, diet, exercise, and running, I lost around 30 pounds and lowered my A1c to an acceptable level of 6.2.”
That wake-up call, and under his doctors’ care, his HbA1c is now at 6.1 percent, and he is back at work.
Self-Management your Diabetes
All Airmen should remember that Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease and may begin to require more medication. It also might become harder to keep your A1c below 7.0 percent. At that point, your diabetes may become uncontrolled, and once your A1c is over 7.0 percent, it is grounds for discharge.
“Managing diabetes requires a 24-7 commitment, and it can be overwhelming. However, it does get easier, and there is an abundance of help available to people with the disease. The reason you want to ask for help is to avoid serious long-term complications, such as kidney failure, heart disease, lower-limb amputation, and blindness,” said Saenz. “This disease has no cure, but there are great ways to manage it, and amazing technology is on the horizon. Furthermore, you, as a parent, will need to engage your children to help them keep in blood sugar in control. Because it can be difficult at times,” he said.
KNOW THE RISK FACTORS
Don’t let this silent killer sneak up on you. Know the signs below, and, once recognized, take action.