More than 32 million Americans or 1 in 10, are living with diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chronic condition, which affects how the body turns food into energy, is linked to a variety of other serious health problems, like heart disease, kidney disease, vision loss and more.
While there is currently no cure for diabetes, medications to improve insulin function in the body allow people to maintain healthy blood glucose levels and live with the disease. Plus, with positive lifestyle interventions — losing weight, eating a healthy diet, and being physically active — it is possible to manage the condition and live life to the fullest.
Just ask Rodney Billingsley. At 61, he has lived with type 2 diabetes for most of his adult life. He was diagnosed at age 28 as he prepared for a knee surgery and has spent much of his life since then managing the disease — and a series of complications along the way.
In recent years, under the care of Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, medical director of the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute, and an endocrinologist at Scripps Clinic, Billingsley has made extraordinary progress in improving his health — thanks to both the multidisciplinary care he’s received at Scripps and his commitment to making the changes necessary to live a long, healthy life.
Billingsley learned he had diabetes in his late 20s. “Everything you could think of going wrong with someone’s health — that’s what happened to me,” he says. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I knew diabetes ran in my family, but I didn’t get tested until I went for my first knee surgery. My blood sugar was 222.” Under 140 is typical, and anything above 200 is considered diabetes. “My doctor at the time said, ‘Did you know you have diabetes?’ I’ve been living with it ever since.”
For decades, he went to health care providers other than Scripps, and he never felt he was receiving the care he needed. Finally, he told his wife Dee that something needed to change.
“I was taking so much medication, but whatever they had me on wasn’t working — I was groggy all the time,” he says. “I told Dee we needed to find someone who could really help me, and that’s when she found Dr. Philis-Tsimikas. The change has been tremendous.”
Dr. Philis-Tsimikas recalls meeting Billingsley, whose story, she says, is so familiar to her after nearly 30 years in the field of endocrinology: “Rodney has a disease that affects millions of people, which he’s been trying to control for years. He came to me with elevated blood sugar, which is typical of people at the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute, and he also had very common complications that come along with type 2 diabetes, including heart disease, elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure.”
But what he also had was a drive to truly make a difference in his health.
“When he came to see me, he also had a strong desire to take better care of himself, but he wasn’t sure how to do it,” Dr. Philis-Tsimikas continues.
“I worked with him to start some new diabetes medications; a few had come on the market that made remarkable improvements, not only in blood sugar levels, but also in heart outcomes.
“Rodney had a great response. He attended our diabetes classes, learning about how to change his diet. His wife partnered with him and was really proactive in helping him eat the right foods. He exercised and lost weight. And all these changes, combined with the right medications, allowed him to bring his numbers into a good range.
“It’s a hard road, living with diabetes; but he is marching on with a positive attitude and doing really, really well.”
As a former college basketball player and law enforcement officer, Rodney Billingsley’s body has been through the wringer in his 61 years. “I’ve had knee surgery and back surgery and stress on my body that I didn’t know would eventually try to take me down,” he says.
He was also diagnosed with peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a circulatory condition that narrows or blocks the vessels that carry blood from the heart to the legs — to the extent that he faced potential amputation of his right leg. He connected with Larry Ballinger, DPM, a podiatrist at Scripps Clinic.
“Podiatry plays many roles in helping people with diabetes,” Dr. Ballinger explains. “We look for signs of peripheral neuropathy, limb-threatening conditions such as PAD, and proper mechanics of the foot. Since Rodney deals with all these, I do my best to make sure these conditions are not getting worse and make appropriate referrals in relation to vascular surgery when needed. I also play a role in maintenance care, to prevent localized issues from becoming a problem.”
Billingsley’s leg was saved, due to interventions from Dr. Philis-Tsimikas and from Dr. Ballinger, who credits him for his personal motivation: “A key factor in Rodney’s success is his own discipline to maintain good health and to work at keeping his diabetes well managed. He is determined and listens to his doctors, which is a step in the right direction, and he has a good, genuine character and demeanor. He always has a positive outlook.”
Perhaps it’s that positive outlook — plus the expertise of even more Scripps specialists — that helped Billingsley overcome even more bumps in his long road to a healthy life. For one: heart surgery, in March 2019.
“I didn’t even know anything was seriously wrong with my heart until I woke up from heart surgery,” he says.
For roughly five years prior, he had been seeing Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic John R. Anderson V Medical Pavilion in La Jolla, for management of his heart health.
“We’ve always been on the lookout for cardiovascular disease, since diabetes and metabolic syndrome are risk factors for accelerated atherosclerosis and risk for heart attack,” Dr. Uddin explains.
“We’ve been screening him at regular three-month intervals with labs, blood sugar monitoring, and cholesterol and intermittent stress testing, which ultimately indicated that he’d developed plaque in his coronary arteries despite being largely asymptomatic, which is often the case with patients with diabetes. I performed a coronary angiogram, and given the finding of multivessel disease, we had a discussion and ultimately proceeded with coronary artery bypass graft (CABG).”
Jeff Tyner, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Scripps Clinic John R. Anderson V Medical Pavilion, performed Billingsley’s CABG using bilateral internal mammary arteries – a process that he says improves patients’ long-term success: “Because of his young age and diabetes, we opted for this technique, which used multiple arterial grafts to give him a better result.”
Both Dr. Uddin and Dr. Tyner say Billingsley’s long-term prognosis is promising, thanks to his ongoing follow ups with his physicians and his participation in the Scripps cardiac rehabilitation program, which have been key to helping him maintain his health and fitness.
“We took care of the surgical problem,” Dr. Tyner says. “He was the perfect candidate for surgery; he’s a motivated patient and he did really well afterward. But he will have to continue to see Dr. Uddin for risk reduction and Dr. Philis-Tsimikas.
As Rodney Billingsley looks to the future, he can trust he’s in good hands with his entire Scripps care team, including his specialists and his primary care physician, Andrew Lai, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. Dr. Lai joins his other doctors in crediting his excellent prognosis to his can-do spirit and dedication to improving his health.
“As an internist in primary care, we are trained to manage diabetes and cardiac illnesses,” Dr. Lai explains. “For Rodney, I function as a second pair of eyes, or a safety net, reviewing the specialists’ instructions and treatment plans with him and making sure he understands what they are doing. Rodney’s receptive personality is one of the biggest factors in his success in managing his health – simply following his doctors’ recommendations, making lifestyle changes, and keeping scheduled appointments. He has been committed and invested, which makes it easy to have a good relationship with his doctors.”
I am very happy with every last one of my Scripps doctors.Rodney Billingsley
Billingsley thanks his doctors, in turn, for the difference they’ve made in his life.
“I’m just trying to stay here as long as possible,” he says. “If I didn’t see Dr. Philis-Tsimikas that first day, you probably wouldn’t be speaking to me right now. I call her my angel. I am very happy with every last one of my Scripps doctors.”
He also thanks his wife Dee, who he says has been his advocate since day one – right by his side 100 percent: “I look forward to getting up every day to have a little meal with my wife and do an activity, like riding bikes.”
But perhaps the greatest motivator for him to continue maintaining his health are his five grandchildren, who keep him busy as can be.
“When I think about the future, my plans are to be active with my grandkids,” he says. “I have a 15-year-old granddaughter who is into track and volleyball, and a 9-year-old grandson who is into baseball and basketball. I coach his team and I play catch with him. I also have three little ones, and I can’t wait to get out there and play soccer with them. Our grandkids keep us busy, and they expect us to be there for them. So, I’m going to continue to do my part to make sure I will be.”