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I should have realized, when Sonja told me she’d given her dog away because she could no longer care for him, that she wasn’t at the top of her game. It didn’t seem like it was that long ago, and it probably wasn’t. I lose track of time a lot.

At any rate, I got a call Monday morning from a mutual friend (aka my traveling bud) saying that Sonja had passed. She was 75, a retired Air Force Major — and the RN, CDE who taught me about diabetes.

Sonja probably saved my life. I say that because, when I first met her, my last known HbA1c was 17.4%. Not too many months after my first session with her, I had joined the “Seven Percent Club.”

Her office was controlled chaos, with everything from useful items to the whimsy of a plastic pig floating in a gallon-sized container shaped like an insulin bottle.

She talked to you: “I like to keep my feet from getting dry. Bacteria can get into the cracks of dry feet and lead to infections. I’ve found that Bag Balm is a good product for dry feet. You can find it at…” Then she’d bring out a visual aid — for example, an empty Bag Balm container — so you’d know what you were looking for. At the end of the session, she’d dig into her filing cabinet and come up with articles and other written information on the topics covered — plus a little extra, such as a cartoon or a list of famous people with diabetes.

Sonja liked anecdotes. “One day I sat and talked with a man’s wife while he walked around the track at the local school. We checked his sugar before and it was X. After he finished his walk, it was X minus Y.” It was her way of telling you that activity could lower your blood glucose — by example, and not just “because I said so.”

It was a way of teaching I was unaccustomed to, and one I liked very much. It worked! I got the information, the anecdotes, the examples, the visual aids, and the written material to help with retention. It was pretty much something for darned near everybody’s learning style.

With Sonja’s guidance, I got to know the “whys” behind what it took to control diabetes. (Well, as much as possible. Sometimes it seems to be downright uncontrollable!) It was a darned sight better than my original so-called education, during which I was handed a printed diet and told: “Here. Follow this. Don’t eat any sugar.” (Did you know that all carbohydrates convert to sugar? I didn’t, until meeting Sonja and her friend the RD, CDE.)

I got comfortable enough to drop into her office when she was free, sit on the floor, and go through her bookcase. She let me borrow books. I had no idea there were that many books about diabetes! It was where I learned there were magazines devoted to diabetes, including Diabetes Self-Management. I was already a writer, focusing on business. Now, I wanted to learn as much as I could about diabetes so I could write about that.

I could call her, even at home. I remember one time, while I was out shopping and just couldn’t seem to keep my glucose up. I called Sonja, told her what all I had eaten and what my blood glucose was. “Where are you?” she asked. “OK. Look around. Do you see a soda machine? Get something with sugar and caffeine in it, take it to a bench, and SIT DOWN! Then drink the soda. Oh, by the way, how did you remember my number?”

We became friends and, after she retired and moved to Florida, we’d meet at Disney World or wherever I was that was close. She even stayed at my house for a couple of days when she was in Indiana visiting her brother.

The last time I saw her was when my traveling bud and I were in Fort Lauderdale to board a ship that would take us through the Panama Canal. That was nearly two years ago. We went down early and got a suite, Sonja met us there, and the “girls” had a three-day pajama party. We would have liked it to go on longer — to have Sonja join us on the cruise — but Sonja said there was a reason she was in the Air Force and not the Navy.

The one thing I’m glad I did while she was alive was to tell Sonja how valuable her lessons were and to thank her for contributing to my diabetes knowledge. Do you have an educator who’s made a difference in your life? Have you thanked him or her? If not, go for it. It means a lot.

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