I knew diabetes was in my family, and I knew how devastating it could be. My grandmother had a stroke in 1962 and my uncle had a stroke in the early 2000s, both believed to have stemmed from their type 2 diabetes. Growing up, my mom, who was a visiting nurse, would talk about eating correctly and how diabetes runs in the family, but I just kind of shrugged her off. I was 100 pounds heavier at the time and I didn’t listen to my mama.
I also didn’t listen to my doctor. I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 1997. With my family history, I knew how serious it could be, but I thought I was invincible and I just kept doing what I’d been doing. I wasn’t interested in making any changes in my life. I had a lot going on those years and the years that followed: I’m the artistic director and founder of the Grammy-Award winning choir, Jubilation, and people know me as Rev. Stef.
I have a Master of Theological Studies degree from Drew University Theological Seminary and a Doctorate of Ministry degree from the United Theological Seminary, and I’m an ordained minister. With the choir, I was busy traveling to five different continents, winning a Grammy with Dana Owens (who you might know as Queen Latifah), and recording a gospel Christmas special with Ray Charles. Jubilation was the last choir to record with the incomparable Mr. Charles.
In other words, I didn’t have time for my diabetes, so it didn’t matter that I knew the potential ramifications of the disease. I wasn’t listening. I believe that’s why, in 2015, I was home, upstairs, and I fell. I didn’t think much of it at the time, to be honest. I thought I was just tired. A friend convinced me that I should call the paramedics, so they came over in the afternoon to do some tests. Then I sent them on their way.
“I’m just tired,” I kept telling myself. I didn’t go to the hospital until about 9 that night, after my brother stopped by and told me I didn’t look good. He urged me to seek medical attention. My brother saved my life. At the hospital, I learned I’d had a stroke.
I woke up the next day in the hospital bed and couldn’t move my left side. The damage from the stroke was extensive, and I was bedridden for a long time. After about a year and a half, I was able to start rehabilitation. Today, it’s been nearly four years and I’m still in rehabilitation, working to strengthen my left side. I’ve come a long way, but I still have work to do. I sometimes use a wheelchair to get around my house, but I’m able to get around with a cane when I’m out and about. Soon, I’m going to take a driving course and start to get behind the wheel again. That’ll be a great pleasure—I miss that feeling of independence.
I believe I had my stroke for a reason: It was a wake-up call. I wasn’t taking care of myself or my diabetes, and I didn’t think what happened to my family could happen to me. Now, I’m a changed person, and I feel it’s my duty to share my story. My 80-person choir, in particular, has watched me go through all of this, and I talk to them—and sometimes our audiences, too—about changes they can make in their lives. They are watching my progress and seeing how I recovered from this stroke. We also talk about diabetes, and things that they can to do prevent or control it.
I’ve made a lot of changes in my life, and I encourage other people to do that, too. Today, controlling my diabetes is a top priority. After my stroke, I started seeing a psychotherapist to talk about my relationship with food. Back then, I wasn’t eating to live; I was living to eat. Today, I’ve done a 180, and I eat to live. I’ve cut out sugar, salt, and starches from my diet, and I take into consideration whether or not what I’m eating is good for me. That’s helped me lose 100 pounds! People ask me all the time if I miss certain foods, and I tell them, “Listen, I’ve eaten so much in the past if I never eat a piece of cake again, it’s okay.”
I also tell people to see their doctor regularly, and to do what he or she says. And I urge them listen to friends and family members who have experience with diabetes—something I never did. You may think you’re invincible, but you’re not.
I encourage people to listen to their bodies. If you are feeling any symptoms that might be a stroke, get to the hospital. Act on it immediately. It is truly a matter of life and death.
My life has changed immensely since 2015. I move more slowly today than I used to, and I handle stress differently. If I’m feeling anxious, I take a deep breath. I wait. And I think about what I’m dealing with and how I’m going to handle it. I take each day as it comes, and I’m grateful for every moment that I have.
I think there’s a misconception about the seriousness of diabetes, and that people take it too lightly. They don’t understand the power of the disease, and what it can do to your body, especially if you don’t monitor it properly.
Before 2015, I was a person who never thought that a stroke could happen to me. Now, I’ve been given a second chance, and I am no longer living my life just for myself. I’m living it to spread the word and help others, before it’s too late.
Rev. Stefanie R. Minatee is the artistic director and founder of the Grammy-Award winning choir, Jubilation.