Meet our Volunteer Spotlight for September 2021, Professor Jonathan Richards
Jonathan is a retired GP from Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. He’s part of our befriending circle in Carmarthenshire and a member of our newly formed Remission Panel. Jonathan is also involved with the All-Wales Diabetes Patient Reference Group.
A life-altering diagnosis
Jonathan was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 18 years ago, although he suspects he had the condition for a few years prior to knowing about it.
“Over a period of about 18 months I was losing weight, feeling ill and lethargic. It never occurred to me it could be diabetes. I remember travelling to London for a conference, and I was thirsty all day. The journey back was a nightmare! I stopped in Cardiff where my mother was living at the time and I drank two full pints of water. The next morning the thought suddenly came to me that I could have diabetes and a test by the practice nurse confirmed it.”
Becoming a patient was an “extraordinary experience” for Jonathan. He says he was “really struggling” at the time and was given great support by the dietitian at his surgery. He recalls a moment when he was at the supermarket and spent a long time trying to decide which type of margarine to buy. His dietician explained that there wasn’t a “perfect type” of margarine and that he was free to choose.
Jonathan reflects that his diagnosis made him stop and think about his lifestyle and realise that he needed to make some changes.
“Before I was diagnosed, I was working extremely hard, and I was stressed all the time. I was probably only getting 4 or 5 hours sleep a night. I was also five stone heavier than I am today.”
Journey since diagnosis
Jonathan has found it invaluable sharing experiences and learning from people living with diabetes at meetings and events. Although he had the knowledge and understanding of diabetes as a doctor, it’s the day-to-day practical things that can be a struggle and it was the little bits of advice that make a difference.
In the last few years, Jonathan has developed neuropathy in his feet and has also experienced some cognitive impairment due to his diabetes which he finds can make his academic work or high-level academic debate more challenging. Despite this, he keeps up to date and takes an interest in the latest scientific and medical research, writing papers on various topics.
When Jonathan retired as a GP in 2015, he recognised that volunteering would give him a purpose in retirement, and he was also keen to do something to help other people. “As a volunteer, I could bring my lived experience of diabetes and my medical experience and knowledge together".
Becoming a befriender volunteer
When Jonathan heard our Carmarthen Befriending Circle was launching earlier this year, he was keen to apply to become a befriender. The befriending circle was set up to address a need for support for people living with diabetes feeling more isolated during pandemic. 61% of the population of Carmarthen live in rural areas and some people don’t have access to public transport or digital connectivity.
Through the circle, volunteers are assigned a person living with diabetes to support and chat to by email or phone. The volunteers know what it’s like to live with diabetes and can signpost to local services and support.
Although Jonathan doesn’t live in the area, he was able to join the circle and has been offering support and a listening ear to someone over the phone for the past few months.
“Loneliness is a big thing at the moment. It’s a great feeling to know that I’m helping someone who may be lonely or isolated. I’ve also benefited from talking to other people living with diabetes. It’s helpful to talk to people that understand things like unpredictable blood sugar levels or weight going up. There’s a sense of powerlessness sometimes and a feeling of not being in control. I’m happy to share my experience if it helps. It’s about being with people through their difficulties.”
Before he could start his role, Jonathan attended a training day. “The standard of training was really high. The training was important because being a befriender, you’re potentially speaking to vulnerable people.”
As a befriender, Jonathan’s role is to listen and to not give medical advice. This is something that he thought he’d find a bit of a challenge because of his years of experience as a GP, but he has been able to adapt.
Role on the Remission Panel
Jonathan explains that he was told by many people when he was diagnosed in 2003 that his type 2 diabetes wasn’t reversible. There wasn’t research available in this area, but it has now been proven that type 2 diabetes can be put into remission.
Jonathan’s looking forward to starting as a volunteer on our newly formed Remission Panel which holds its first meeting in early September. The Remission Panel’s been set up to bring together voices to provide insight and shape and develop Diabetes UK’s remission work going forward.
Jonathan’s keen to offer his personal experience and his experience as a doctor to the work. He’s also hoping to bring his insight and knowledge of the NHS in Wales to discussion which he acknowledges is very different to the other nations.
“My working life was always centred on trying to make a difference. Volunteering is a way of continuing to make a difference, by supporting people and sharing my insight and experience.”
If you’ve been inspired by Jonathan’s story, find a volunteer role for you.