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'Animal House' Star Ignored Diabetes Alarms

'I thought I was more powerful than the disease,' Stephen Furst says; now he helps educate diabetics about heart disease

SATURDAY, Dec. 8, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Remember Stephen Furst from the movie "Animal House"? He played Flounder, the naïve, fun-loving -- and fat -- freshman frat boy.

Turns out Furst was naïve about a lot more than just college life. A Type II diabetic since he was 17, Furst let his weight and blood-sugar levels balloon to the point where doctors almost had to amputate his foot.

"I thought I was more powerful than the disease of diabetes," says Furst, now a writer and producer living near Los Angeles. "But in reality, I was letting it take control of me. Now, I've decided to take control of my diabetes."

Furst is the spokesman for a new American Heart Association program called "The Heart of Diabetes: Understanding Insulin Resistance."

The program's aim is to raise awareness that diabetes is a major risk factor for heart disease, says Dr. Richard Nesto, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.

Heart disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths, but few are aware of the danger. About 63 percent of Type II diabetics have cardiovascular disease, while only 33 percent consider heart disease to be among the "most serious" diabetes-related conditions, according to a recent American Heart Association survey.

"For years, people thought of the risk factors for heart disease as high blood pressure, family history and smoking," Nesto says. "It's only recently that the importance of diabetes as a risk factor for heart disease has been acknowledged."

Type II diabetics who sign up for the program will fill out a health risk assessment and receive information on managing diabetes and a ledger to keep track of their progress. Furst will also send encouragement and helpful hints on recipes and exercises that have worked for him.

Type II diabetes most often occurs in people who are obese, sedentary, over age 45, have a family history of the disease and who are African-American, Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American or Pacific Islander, according to the American Heart Association.

For decades, doctors focused on keeping blood sugar levels under control to reduce such complications as blindness, amputations, nerve damage and kidney disease, says Nesto, also an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Strict sugar control has lead to a significant decrease in those complications among Type II diabetics. But the rate of heart attacks and strokes hasn't declined much at all, he says.

Diabetes contributes to almost 200,000 U.S. deaths a year, about two-thirds of them from heart disease or stroke. The risk of heart attack is 50 percent higher in men with diabetes and 150 percent higher in women with diabetes than in people without diabetes, while the risk of stroke is two to four times higher.

Furst is all too familiar with the deadly link between diabetes and heart disease. His father, also a diabetic, died of a heart attack at age 47.

Later that same year, Furst was diagnosed with diabetes. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 320 pounds.

"You'd think knowing that my father died would be enough for me to make changes," he says. "But my biggest sacrifice was giving up chocolate milk for two weeks. I went on a journey of doing whatever I wanted."

As a result, his diabetes continued to worsen. He began taking oral medication to boost his body's ability to use insulin to control his blood sugar levels; several years later he had to rely on daily insulin injections.

But his eating -- and his diabetes -- were still out of control. He developed eye problems and diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage, which made his feet feel like they were burning.

Then one day he cut his foot and didn't realize it. It got so infected, he had to be hospitalized and treated with intravenous antibiotics.

Still, the message didn't sink in. He asked a nurse to bring him a Yellow Pages, and when she left the room, he promptly ordered Chinese food.

But the nurse caught him, confiscated the food, removed the phone from his room and called the doctor, who told him frightening news: The infection was so severe they might have to amputate his foot.

"That was my wake-up call," Furst says. "I was embarrassed and scared."

He was 40 years old. For the first time in his life, he followed the diet doctors prescribed for him and began to exercise.

"I took one step at a time," Furst says. "I couldn't say, 'God, I have to be on this diet forever.' I had to just try to stay on it one day."

Now 47, Furst keeps his weight at 175 pounds. Three days a week, he walks on a treadmill for a half hour and uses weight machines at his gym.

He also travels the country for the American Heart Association program, offering encouragement to others going through a similar struggle.

"I want people to know that if I can do it, they can do it," Furst says. "And they need to know that it might save their life."

What to Do: People with Type II diabetes can join "The Heart of Diabetes" program by calling the American Heart Association toll-free at (800) 242-8721, or by visiting the group's Web site. To learn more about Type II diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association Web site.

SOURCES: Interviews with Richard Nesto, M.D., chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine, Lahey Clinic, Burlington, Mass., and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Stephen Furst, writer-producer, and spokesman, American Heart Association's "The Heart of Diabetes: Understanding Insulin Resistance" program
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