For National Diabetes Month, a local baker talks about her lifelong struggle with the disease.
By Monica Drake
Featured photo by Quinn Banks
Melanie Montgomery Wilson, 53, of Clarkston loves making desserts — even though she can’t enjoy most of them herself.
That’s because, like more than 1 million people in Michigan, Wilson has diabetes.
“It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? I can bake well but can’t eat it,” she says. “But I like being able to please people. And baking and seeing people’s reactions to what I do gives me great joy.”
Wilson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in October 1974, a few weeks before her ninth birthday. She was having difficulty breathing and, even though she was eating normally, lost almost 20 pounds in a few weeks.
She was tested for diabetes, and the results came back positive. She was only in third grade when she learned how to check her sugar levels and give herself injections.
“The diagnosis definitely made me grow up quicker. I had to be self-sufficient; I had no choice,” she says.
And, for decades, she was self-sufficient — until she was forced to leave her job in 2008. The job was stressful, causing her blood glucose levels to rise and, ultimately, led to seizures at the office. For the first time in her life, her doctor told her she wasn’t healthy enough to work her normal 9-to-5 job.
For someone who always supported herself, waiting at home while her husband was at work and her two boys were at school just wasn’t her style. So, she started volunteering to bake for her sons’ school functions. Soon, she gained a reputation throughout the Clarkston school district for her desserts.
“The teachers started asking me, ‘Hey, can you do a side job for me?’ ” Wilson says.
After researching the Michigan Cottage Food Law, which allows people to sell shelf-stable food made in their own kitchens, Wilson started an at-home business, Mel’s Bake Shop. Each baked good she makes is a piece of art, whether it’s hand-painted roses on a wedding cake, realistic buttercream leaves or her most recent order — a “Stranger Things” birthday cake.
With her job now, she can make her own schedule and take a timeout whenever her sugar levels fluctuate to an extreme.
“When I’m not feeling well, I have to say, ‘No,’ ” she says. “I know my limits.”
Wilson also makes diabetic-friendly desserts. She likes to use monk fruit sweetener, which doesn’t impact blood sugar levels. She garnishes desserts with berries instead of frosting and makes low-carb dough out of mozzarella cheese, cream cheese, almond flour, baking soda and an egg.
“There’s so many new ingredients coming out that gives people with diabetes the option to eat and enjoy things that others can have on an everyday basis,” she says.
Life with diabetes
Diabetes has affected many aspects of Wilson’s life, including her job and, most devastatingly, her ability to carry a child full term.
“I know several people with diabetes who were able to have a baby. I wasn’t one of them. I got pregnant and went into a comatose state,” she says.
Because of nerve damage in her stomach, she lost her baby at four months, and doctors suggested that she and her husband, Andy, not try again.
“It was hard to hear, but we took it to heart. Andy said, ‘It’s not worth losing you,’ ” Wilson says.
So, two years later, they adopted their son, Jacob, and three years after that, his biological brother, Colin.
“We were in the delivery room when both of them were born,” she says. “We changed their diapers, and we were up all night with them, same as any other parent.”
Wilson says Andy is her guardian angel for taking care of her and being by her side through all of life’s toughest moments. She knows without Andy squirting glucose gel in her mouth or calling 911 when her seizures get really bad, she easily could have died. “It’s been part of my life for the last 30 years,” Andy says. “I wouldn’t call myself an expert in diabetes, but I’m an expert in her diabetes. I know her diabetes better than she does.”
“There’s little ticks she has. I can’t even explain it; I just know her. … 99 percent of people don’t know what she goes through on a daily basis. She’s tougher than any woman I’ve ever met.”
Besides being a wife, mother and running a business, Wilson also spends time raising awareness of the disease she’s had for most of her life.
“A lot of people don’t understand diabetes, so I try to correct misconceptions,” she says.
For Wilson, she has type 1 diabetes — an autoimmune disease that left her pancreas unable to make insulin. With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas usually produces some insulin, just not as much as the body needs.
While Wilson couldn’t have prevented her diagnosis, she knows there are ways to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. So, that’s what she’s trying to do — educate others on the importance of early detection.
Dr. Ajaz A. Banka, an endocrinologist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, shares some tips to prevent type 2 diabetes. He says it’s important to maintain a normal body weight and eat a healthy diet. “With increasing weight, the body develops resistance to the action of insulin, which leads to the development of diabetes,” Banka says. “Every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of weight loss is associated with a 16 percent reduction of diabetes risk.”
He adds that 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise has been shown to delay the development of type 2 diabetes.
Banka encourages people to get a blood sugar test as part of their routine checkup. This will show if they have hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. Classic symptoms of hyperglycemia include increased urination, increased thirst, blurred vision and, sometimes, weight loss.
“Often patients have undiagnosed hyperglycemia and impaired blood sugar up to 10 years before they are diagnosed. Many patients have already developed microvascular complications at the time of diagnosis. That is why it is imperative to take timely action,” he says.
Banka says if someone waits too long to get tested or avoids medication, he or she will develop complications. Wilson knows this from experience and has met several people in the diabetic community who have suffered from kidney failure or loss of eyesight due to untreated diabetes.
“The sooner you start treatment, the better off you are, and the less problems you’ll end up with. You can’t ignore it; you have to take care of yourself,” she says.
Beaumont offers diabetes programs throughout Metro Detroit for people interested in preventing type 2 diabetes or improving the self-management of their diabetes. For more information, visit beaumont.org/services/diabetes-services.