Family House Diaries: Living life to the fullest despite complications from diabetes

Wednesday, February 17, 2010 — For 54 of his 58 years, Jack Newmann of Cary, N.C. has lived with Type I diabetes and its consequences, but he hasn’t stopped living.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for the UNC Medical Center News Office

For 54 of his 58 years, Jack Newmann has lived with Type I diabetes and its consequences, but he hasn’t stopped living.

“If I can feel the floor on the bottom of my feet when I get out of bed in the morning, then I go to the window to see if the sun is shining,” said Newmann, who has been legally blind since 1990 and currently is being treated at UNC Hospitals for a foot wound that will not heal.

“And then I read what’s posted on the side of my dresser: ‘Live every day as if it’s your last – some day it will be’,” said the ever-upbeat Newmann, a former counselor of juvenile delinquents and a retired rehabilitation counselor for the blind. “It is what it is, and if you can’t laugh about it, what are you going to do?”

Since early December, Newmann of Cary has spent weekday mornings in the hyperbaric chamber at the Wound Healing and Podiatry Clinic of the UNC Center for Heart & Vascular Care in hopes of saving his right foot, broken in two places during a routine martial arts class in August. At the time of the injury, Newmann received immediate medical attention, but the foot wasn’t healing and became ulcerated.

“Then, we find out there was no pulse in my foot, so I had bypass surgery to increase the blood flow,” said Newmann, raising his pants’ leg to reveal a barely visible, nicely healed scar from ankle to knee. “We’re hopeful the hyperbaric chamber treatment adds even more oxygen to the blood and speeds healing. I’m making progress, but it’s not fast enough for me.”

The treatment involves Newmann lying on a gurney inside a clear tubular chamber where the pressure is slowly adjusted until it mimics the atmosphere at 40- to 45-feet below sea level. During the “descent” and corresponding “ascent,” Newmann is constantly swallowing and yawning – much as one would with airplane take-offs and landings – to keep ear pain at bay. He usually listens to news as a distraction during the two-hour procedure. He gets a routine assessment and progress report once a week.

“Results of randomized studies support the use of hyperbaric therapy as an adjunct to standard care to improve healing in complex diabetic and other high-risk wounds where limbs could be lost if the wounds don’t heal,” said William A. Marston, M.D., the leader of Newmann’s health care team, director of the Wound Healing and Podiatry Clinic and professor of surgery in the Department of Surgery at the UNC School of Medicine. “We are trying to give Jack every opportunity we can to heal.”

The laborious treatment usually involves between 30 and 50 sessions in the chamber, and patient commitment is essential for any hope of success, Dr. Marston said. “Jack is very dedicated to his treatment and is doing everything right. He’s prompt for his treatment, changes his dressings appropriately and uses the pressure off-loading orthodic device to take as much pressure off his foot when he has to be on it. He’s giving himself every chance to heal.”

Although Newmann lives in Cary with his daughter Kaycee, her husband Louie and their three children – Kaitrinn, 9, Shealyn, 6, and Gavin, 3 – he can’t drive himself to and from Chapel Hill for treatment because of his failing eyesight, nor can his family get him back and forth daily with ease or convenience.

Enter SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caregivers. Kaycee drops her father off on Monday mornings and picks him up after treatment on Fridays. Newmann rides the shuttle to and from the hospital. A few times he’s ridden Chapel Hill’s free public transportation when he’s missed the shuttle.

“Riding the bus requires a little more walking on my part, but I have my cane and I do fine,” Newmann said. “Before I hurt my foot, I walked as much as 10 miles at a time and I lifted weights. I am concerned that I’m losing muscle tone.”

Newmann readily and gratefully acknowledges that Family House staff made an exception to its policy that guests must live beyond a 50-mile radius of Chapel Hill to stay there. And he shows that gratitude by trying to help fellow SECU Family House guests.

“It is a life-altering event,” said Newmann, referring to both the treatment and being away from his family during the week.

“But it’s life-altering too for all the patients and families who travel here for surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or whatever medical attention they need.

“And we are like one big family at SECU Family House. There is incredible camaraderie between guests and staff and all the volunteers. There’s always someone to talk to if you need it. Yes, I talk and joke a lot, but I can sense when someone doesn’t want or need that. What you give, is what you get.

“From my work as a counselor, I’m a good listener and often times hear things that people can’t hear themselves say,” Newmann said, just as his cell phone rang with a call from a fellow guest asking if he had time to talk. “It’s not my place to tell them what to do, but I can offer some options for how they might resolve whatever issue it is they are dealing with.”

As much as he is enjoying his stay at SECU Family House, Newmann can hardly wait to return home.

“I’m known as a patient person, whether I was counseling patients or just talking with friends and family,” Newmann said. “But when it comes to me, I get impatient. I want to just keep going, living each day to the fullest.”

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