This is Angel. He is now 8 years old, and he is a very happy child. Now please look at this picture and imagine that this is your own child, nephew, cousin, niece, grandchild, or a child you know and love. You will do anything to keep this child healthy, safe and happy.
This is my story.
When Angel turned 3 years old, he started to gain weight. I took him to the doctor for his check-up. The doctor told me the weight was not a problem because Angel was growing and he was going to catch up on it and not to worry.
Two years went by. Angel was now 5 years old. He weighed 120 pounds and his weight was going up and up. I changed doctors. This time the doctor paid attention to the weight gain. He suggested we eat more fruits and vegetables in our diet, and he referred me to the weight assessment clinic at the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco. It took me 2 years from the time of that referral to get my first visit in 2010.
On the day of our first appointment, Angel was not allowed to eat anything before the appointment. We drove to San Francisco. We sat in the waiting room talking and thinking about what the doctor was going to say to us. The clinic staff talked to us about foods that are rich in fiber and how to eat small portions 5 times a day and to eat lots of fruits and vegetables and to drink lots of water. Then we went to the lab, where they did blood tests on Angel. After that we moved to a big gymnasium with many other children, where the staff played games like soccer, basketball, rope jumping, and other games that kept the children moving around, sweating a lot and breathing fast. Staff told us that getting exercise doesn’t take more than 20 minutes, two to four times a day and that this was important.
Then we were finally called in to see Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist. He asked us about our daily life, what foods did we eat at home, how many times did we eat out, what did we drink. I answered that we eat fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, tortillas; that we drink apple juice and orange juice and that I add water to the juice as recommended by WIC to make it less sweet.
The doctor then asked how many times a week I cook at home and eat out. I said I cook 2 to 3 times a week and I buy fast food 2 to 3 times a week for dinner with soda. On weekends we have family gatherings and we eat cookies and cakes and other foods.
The doctor then looked at me and said, “I have the results of the blood test; your son’s pancreas is making too much insulin. This is called acanthosis. He is very close to being a type-2 diabetic.”
He waited for that information to register in me, then he asked, “Do you want that for him? If you continue feeding Angel as you have done, and allow him to drink juice and sodas and eat fast food and junk food, then he is going to gain more weight and get lots of respiratory infections and get sicker every year.”
Then the doctor said, “By the age of 25 or 26, he will be dead.”
When I heard his words I was in shock, I did not know what to say.
“If you want to get help from the clinic,” he continued, “you must agree to change. If you choose not to make the changes and continue your lifestyle, don’t come back.”
This was so much to take in, I was absolutely stunned. A thousand thoughts went through my mind at one time. I realized that it was I who was going to lose in the end, and regret it for the rest of my life because I did not make the right decision for my child. I recognized that I needed to make a commitment to my child and my family. And I had to remember that if I gave my child a soda I could not come back to the clinic. But the clinic was the only hope we had!
I was determined to give my child a healthy lifestyle. I said to myself, my son means everything to me, he is my world. I made the commitment to my child and to my family to change our lifestyle and the way we eat.
On the way home, my mind was all over, thinking how? why? I realized that I was the one going to the store and buying the food, bringing it into my home. I was the one cooking it and feeding my child. I was the one stopping at the restaurants and buying the food. It was me. I was the grownup who was not making the right choices … because I felt so tired after work, and fast food was too easy.
So I was the one making my child sick. He was my responsibility. He looked up to me, I was his teacher. I cried all the way home, kissing him and hugging him thinking I am not going to lose my child. He is going to live a long and healthy life.
When I got home, I walked in and got the trash can and started to clean my entire kitchen. Then I went to the store and bought fresh fruits and vegetables, water, cereals, bread with fiber … and from that point, there has been no soda or juice in our house.
Initially, I felt very much alone fighting with this sickness in my family. I had no one to talk to or to listen to my questions. For the first two months, everything was very hard and always a fight at every meal every day. I was going to bed crying.
One day Angel’s school called me in for a meeting. They asked me if my son Angel was eating breakfast at home because he was picking food out of the garbage at school. I could just picture it in my mind--my son eating leftover food from other children. It made me sick, very sick to my stomach. I started to cry, because my son was screaming for help. He did not understand why everything had to change. His own behavior changed, and he did not feel good about himself any more.
I told the staff at the school that he was under the care of a weight clinic in San Francisco. I also informed them that Angel was learning to make good choices when picking out his lunch at school. I asked them to please help him and guide him during lunch time, and support him in changing his habits.
I was working at the North Bay Children’s Center when the Garden of Eatin’ Project started in 2005. For six years I have been around David Haskell and his beautiful garden, participating in his nutrition education training classes. But I did not take it in. I did not apply it to myself or my family. David and I started to talk, I told him how hard it was to make the changes in the house, and how emotionally and mentally devastated we all felt. We talked about what it was like working with the San Francisco clinic, cleansing our bodies from all the sugar we ate before and trying to build a new healthy lifestyle.
Last year, David offered me a position in his Healthier Children program. I now work with him to help children and especially their families make healthy choices.
I am pleased to be able to share my story with you, the story about my son Angel, and how he is fighting with his weight and how hard it is for him to say no to all the unhealthy foods that are around him. But we are making progress, and I am working with him and the people around him to help him make the life-and-death choices the doctor spoke to us about, the healthy choices for a long life.
Ms. Escobar is a health advisor for Healthier Children, a nonprofit organization in Marin County. She presented this testimonial at the Latino Health Forum in Santa Rosa last October.