Seeing his mum struggle to manage her Type 2 diabetes pushed Phylex, 44, to warn others about the risks of developing it. Now a Diabetes UK Community Champion, he educates fellow bus drivers on the importance of eating well and keeping active to reduce their risk of Type 2 diabetes and other health conditions.
Diabetes UK Community Champion
“When I get feedback from the people I help, it makes me feel good knowing that one person can make a difference in a community. I feel alive!”
Phylex’s journey with diabetes
- Discovered his mum had Type 2 diabetes in 2010
- In 2011, she was diagnosed with cancer, but her poorly managed Type 2 made it difficult for doctors to treat it and she died six months later
- Phylex realised he could be at risk of Type 2 and made drastic changes to his lifestyle
- At work he saw how unhealthy his colleagues were and started educating them about the importance of healthy diet and exercise
- Became a Diabetes UK Community Champion in 2017
Friends and family
In 2010, I was planning to take my mum to the UK from Jamaica for a holiday when I learnt that she had Type 2 diabetes. I said, “Mum, why didn’t you tell me?” But like a lot of parents, she hadn’t wanted to worry me.
The following year my mum moved to UK, but six months to the day after she arrived she passed away from cancer. She only found out she was unwell when she moved here, and the diabetes seemed to get in the way. It prevented her from having the operation she needed because the hospital said it was too dangerous to operate.
I couldn’t just sit by and see the health of the other drivers deteriorate. I’d worked in health and social care for eight years before becoming a bus driver, so I knew I had the skills and knowledge to help them. I talked to my manager and explained what I wanted to do, and he said, “Yes, get out there”.
With support from the Croydon Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) Forum, an organisation which works to improve the community, I started visiting all four bus garages in south London. I’d have a table with leaflets about healthy eating, diabetes and other conditions. My aim was to get drivers to go to their GP and get themselves checked out. I also gave out beetroot juices and green smoothies. I did this on my days off and use my holiday because I knew how important it was.
Diabetes UK and me
Whenever I’d go to the Croydon BME there would be a Community Champion from Diabetes UK giving out information. She’d always say to me, “Why don’t you become a champion?’ After a few years, I thought, “You know what, I’m going to do it”. I thought it would advance my knowledge of nutrition and diabetes, so I went ahead and put in my application.
Since becoming a Community Champion in August 2017, I’ve learnt so much about people from different backgrounds and the food they eat. Traditional foods are taken very seriously, so when you’re promoting awareness of diabetes, it’s not as easy as giving someone information and hoping they’ll go away and do something about it.
What I do first is to try to understand the individual. At my garage, we have people from lots of different backgrounds and I have to engage with them and see what they like and don’t like. Some people will talk to you in front of everyone, but there are others who don’t want everyone to know their business so they’ll talk to you when you’re alone.
Once you understand where their difficulty is coming from, then you can try to find a solution. It’s easy to tell someone off about what they’re eating, but you have to understand that it’s in their blood. They don’t care about diabetes – they want to eat what they want, what they love, what they’re used to. And they probably don’t know any better.
I try to help educate people about food and activity so they can minimise the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in the next 10 years. Drivers go to and from work every day, and they don’t think much about their diet and lifestyle. I talk to them about the dangers of the condition, so they can take that information into their homes and to their families.
The main reason they listen to me is because I’m one of them. I trained with them, I drive the same bus and I have the same problems they do. I’m not an outsider. They’ll listen to me when I prompt them to go and see their GP for a check up, then they come back to me for nutritional support. I always say, “I’ve got your back”.
Diet, nutrition and active living
When my mum broke the news about her diabetes, I knew that I had to make drastic changes to my lifestyle, otherwise my pancreas would have been in serious trouble.
I used to train a lot at the gym but even though I looked healthy, I felt tired and I didn’t know why. I’d eat four meals a day and sit inside a lot, but I never imagined I could have got diabetes because of what I was eating and my ethnicity.
The hardest thing was cutting down on traditional Caribbean foods. I like rice and peas, chicken stew peas – all foods that would raise blood sugar levels! Now my diet’s made up of 40% green vegetables and some fruits; 30% protein; and 30% carbohydrate. I have more energy now than when I was 30!
As a bus driver, our shifts are varied, but we always know what hours we’re working well in advance. So, the weekend before, I always organise the food I need for that week. If I didn’t do that I’d have to buy food while I’m on my breaks – and that would be really bad for me.
I’m trying to educate the other drivers to not buy food on the road because they’ll end up buying the wrong things and will consume more sugar than they should. But, by preparing it at home and taking it with them, they’ll know exactly what they’re taking in.
It’s opened their eyes and they take it seriously now. I’ve seen drivers make a lot of changes, from drinking Red Bull and Coca-Cola with their meals, to having water. People can’t wait to tell you they’ve been doing well. They say to me, “Phylex, I’ve been to the gym today and I’ve been drinking water!”
What has helped me most?
My mum’s condition and everything that happened pushed me into doing this. Knowing that she had diabetes woke me up.
She’s the one who opened up the doors big time for me, to make me go on and do the things I’m doing now. I think if it wasn’t for my mum I would have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes by now.
All the diabetes information put me on the right track and has given me more awareness. I spotted the symptoms things early and decided to do something about it over the years.
Whether or not you are prone to diabetes or not, it’s important to go to your GP and get yourself checked out. Whether or not you come back with a diabetes diagnosis, you need to take control to maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Build your relationship with your doctor, too.
It’s very good knowing you have all this information that you can share with your family, friends and co-workers. When I get feedback from the people I help, it makes me feel good knowing that one person can make a difference in a community. I feel alive! I’m proud of myself and what I’ve achieved over the years.
Looking after your health won’t help you live forever, but it’ll help you have a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Don’t wait for something to happen to you – the best time to manage your health is when you are healthy, not when you are sick. Do something about it before to try and prevent it.
Be in the know about complications, and make sure you find out about the 15 healthcare essentials.