Henry Cruz didn’t always know that he would end up as a public speaker and an advocate for diabetes prevention, but the signs were visible even at an early age. Cruz fondly remembers cleaning his church on Saturday as a child, a time during which he’d pretend to preach to the empty bleachers. Though his uncle would laugh, Cruz recalled being impressed by public speaking and motivation even from that age, and as one of twelve siblings all diagnosed with diabetes, this chronic disease seemed like a logical topic upon which to focus. Today, only four of the twelve are alive. “Diabetes pretty much wreaked havoc on my family,” said Cruz. Complications from his own battle with the disease have left him with a constant reminder of its destructive capabilities. He was the first member of his family to go to college, but a month before he was set to walk at graduation, sudden diabetic retinopathy robbed him of his sight.
Cruz had already been accepted to NYU’s law school, but the abrupt onset of blindness threw a wrench in his plans. “One day I asked the doctor if I would ever see again, and he said, ‘No,’” Cruz recalled, but even this devastating assertion wasn’t enough to convince him. He called Dr. Meredith Hawkins, now the Director of the Global Diabetes Institute, and she encouraged Cruz not to give up hope. A few months later, she put him in contact with a doctor prepared to aggressively treat Cruz’s eyes. “[When the operation was complete, the doctor] said, ‘This is the best operation I’ve ever done.’” Only one day later, Cruz’s bandages were removed. Fortunately, when Cruz opened his eyes, he found that his sight had been partially restored in his left eye. “I turn to my cousin, and I look at him, and I say, ‘Why would you come out with me and not shave?’” Cruz joked.
Unfortunately, the joy that came with the restoration of his vision was overshadowed a few years later when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, his aunt suffered a heart attack, and his sister succumbed to cancer. To combat his developing depression, Cruz secured a life coach. One day, his coach stumbled across a job ad for an Associate Manager of Hispanic Initiatives for the American Diabetes Association. “And I looked at him and was like, ‘How much does that pay?’ And he said, ‘How about getting out of bed?’” With his coach’s encouragement, Cruz sent his cover letter. Only 15 minutes later, he got a call from their hiring manager, and three minutes into the interview on the following day, he was hired. However, that was only the start of Cruz’s battle against diabetes.
Now, Cruz educates others on diabetes self-management and takes whatever opportunities he is offered to address chronic diseases. “When you look at the statistics,” Cruz noted, “33% of boys born after the year 2000 will develop diabetes. 39% of girls will develop diabetes.” When race is added to the picture, the figures become roughly 50% for Latino and African American children. Even now, children are walking into ERs all over the country with complications from diabetes, and most aren’t even aware that they have the disease. These diabetics may even need dialysis or could face amputation in the case of more serious complications. “The solutions are education,” Cruz said. Physical education in schools is of particular importance, as obesity is the leading cause of diabetes. “If our children don’t build muscle, they won’t be able to burn calories.”
Another critical factor in the development of Type 2 diabetes is the type of food consumed. “We subsidize corn syrup in America even though we know that the body doesn’t handle corn syrup well,” Cruz explained, “Diabetes can actually be correlated with the expansion of corn syrup into consumer products.” While healthier foods produced without corn syrup are certainly available, they are often much more expensive than the less healthy alternatives. This is a particular problem for the less-wealthy members of society, especially those on public assistance who are already struggling to afford their necessary medications. “[Diabetes] is a disease that’s triggered by what’s put into your mouth, and people don’t know what good eating is. Sometimes they can’t afford it.”
Diabetes is the largest growing pandemic in the entire world, and while methods exist to help curtail its development and effects, many are ignorant of their existence. Cruz advocates moving to a preventative model of medicine in which doctors are rewarded for preventing a disease before it begins to pose a severe problem, rather than curing it or bringing it back into control after the fact. Simple tests can determine whether or not one is in a pre-diabetic state, but they are not regularly implemented in check-ups or doctor visits. Furthermore, many systems of state are not set up to aid individuals with chronic illnesses.
“I’m always pushing for resources. I’m always teaching new organizations,” Cruz said of his work. Now, one of his current projects involves working with a glucose meter company. The meter is free, 99% accurate, and 100% recyclable. In addition, it’s over 70% cheaper than any meters currently available in the market. Cruz also works with companies in India that are testing generic brands of insulin. Though they can’t be brought into the United States – no generic insulin has been approved yet by the FDA – they can be put to good use in other countries, such as Mexico and the Dominican Republic, where diabetics are dying because they can’t afford brand name insulin. Recently, Cruz visited New Orleans as the keynote speaker for the 38th annual National Association of Hispanic Nurses (NAHN) conference. When asked about those he addressed, he said, “You save one life and you’re a hero. You save 100, and you’re a nurse.”
Though the fight against chronic disease is constant and his visual impairment makes certain things difficult, Cruz is satisfied with his life. “When I do things for other people, my life feels better,” he mused. Growing up a gay Christian constantly told that being gay was a problem didn’t lend to a high self-esteem. “I like me. I didn’t like me before because I was raised understanding…that I was flawed. That I was wrong.” Cruz even faced initial discrimination from his own family members due to his sexual orientation. Despite the need for someone to care for many of his late siblings’ children and grandchildren, his relatives were resistant at first out of fear that he would “turn the kids gay.” Now, Cruz has raised six children, none of them biologically his own, and all have grown into wonderful adults and parents themselves. He has lost many family members, but gained countless friends willing to join him in his battle against chronic disease. “Life has changed, but I fight on.”