'I can't believe I feel this good': Logan 'powerhouse' radio host targets diabetes
LOGAN, W.Va. -- Elaine Purkey, 63, leaned into the microphone, belting out "Coal Miner's Daughter," beating guitar strings in heavy rhythm, her band on banjo, dobro and guitar close behind her.
"We're here at the Big Ugly Community Center, broadcasting The Friendly Neighbor Show on WVOW-FM radio, Logan," she told radio listeners in energetic, rapid-fire delivery.
A couple well past 70 shuffled up to the microphone to sing "I Want to Go Back." "I think this might be Gladys' first time in front of a radio microphone," Purkey told listeners.
She helped Gladys adjust the mic while somebody else read a "mention" for one of the show's many sponsors: "I just want to mention Workman's IGA right across the river from Chapmanville, one of the oldest businesses in town. They have a great deli!"
This is down-home, local radio: family bands, hot pickers, and working people singing songs about jealous lovers, the Civil War, and faded love. "If someone wants to sing, we'll put them on the radio," Purkey said, "long as they play their own instrument. We don't do piped-in music."
They edited out the parts where people forgot the words and beamed out an hour on WVOW every Saturday morning. "The show's incredibly popular," said program director Dave Allen. "It ranks right up there with high school sports and The Trading Post, and that's about as good as it gets in Logan, W.Va."
"Elaine's a powerhouse," said show regular Carolyn Frye. "She never runs down."
"That's truer now than it used to be," Purkey said. "She's forgetting about my stroke. And maybe she doesn't know about the diabetes."
"I didn't know I had diabetes"
Last April, Purkey was shopping at the Family Dollar store in Harts when she "got a weird tingle that started at the top of my head and spread down through my body." She ended up sitting on the floor, leaning against the counter. "I couldn't talk, and it was all I could do to raise a bottle or water to my mouth," she said.
"I hadn't had a stroke in a long time," she said. "My doctor says it's the diabetes. I think it did damage before I got my blood sugar under control."
Before 1998, she didn't even know she had diabetes. "I was just 50, but I was feeling like an old, old person. It was all I could do to get up and go to work. My head hurt, my body ached."
Her retired coal miner husband was diabetic too. "What we ate was killing us, but we didn't realize it. We were eating like our parents ate so, of course, we thought that was OK. Our favorite breakfast was biscuits and gravy and fried potatoes, and after I'd eat it, I'd be groggy and nod off for hours. I had no idea what it was doing to my blood sugar.
"I worked as a telemarketer. The day I found out I was diabetic, I went out to my van during our break, and the next thing I knew, the guard was knocking on the window, and I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn't get the words out."
She was having her first diabetic episode. They took her to Logan Hospital, where she was diagnosed. "Then they brought me a meal of breaded steak and gravy with potatoes, bread, canned peaches and ice cream and coffee with sugar," she said. "No diabetic education whatsoever back then."
When she got home, Purkey went looking for help. "My doctor gave me pamphlets about diabetes, but I didn't need information about what diabetes is. I needed to know how to make a meal or order from a menu without shooting my numbers sky-high."
Finally, the American Diabetes Association put on a free self-management class in Lincoln County, "so I went to that. It was six weeks long, and you'd concentrate on one thing a week, then report back the next week what happened. One week, you'd eliminate all sugar. Another week, you'd eliminate all potatoes.
"I never realized potatoes metabolized so quickly into sugar. Why don't they teach us these things? Everyone around here eats lots of potatoes."
Purkey learned to count carbohydrates and learned that diabetes can damage your heart and every organ in the body. "So if I got my blood sugar under control, I'd be preventing heart attacks and all kinds of bad stuff," she said.
She drove to classes in Huntington, then went to a Marshall University dietitian. "She told me how many carbohydrates I should be eating a day, taught me how big a serving size is and what the relationship is between my carbs, fats, and protein. She showed me how to figure out what to eat within those limits."
She still eats potatoes, "but I just watch how much and how they're cooked and what I eat them in combination with," she said. "I don't eat more than two carb servings a meal, and that can include potatoes. I ate a brownie last night."
Her A1C test number has dropped from 9.8 to 6.4. An A1C score of 7 or higher is diabetic. "My doctor said she was proud of me, but not half as proud as I am of myself," she said. "Now I can stay up late to play music if I want to."
"Maybe I can help"
Purkey came to the organizing meeting of the new Logan Diabetes Coalition in early June. "I've been around the block with diabetes and thought maybe I could help."
One in six Logan County residents is diabetic. "It's the silent killer of our people," she said. "Everyone knows there's deaths in the coal mines, but we don't realize that every day, diabetes is killing people quietly."
Daughter of a railroad worker and union coal miner's wife, Purkey has been through poverty, coal strikes, hard times and raising grandkids. A well-known singer in labor circles, she has sung from California to Chicago, "but nothing I've come up against has been tougher than diabetes," she said.
"I've learned what to do. I drink more water. I don't drink pop. I work in the garden and walk several times a week. I count carbs. Now that I realize something can happen to me, every day seems more precious. I take better care of myself so I can stay around."
Her taste buds have adjusted. "You start liking different things. My husband's gone through this with me. He was a salt freak, but now at a restaurant, we tell them to leave off the salt. We salt it ourselves. If they salt it, it doesn't taste right anymore."
"I've made up my mind. I'm not going to let this disease kill me. It has damaged my stomach, and I still have little strokes, yes, but it has not damaged my heart or kidneys yet. And so far, so good with my eyes."
Two days ago, she got a crew together and recorded two more Friendly Neighbor shows. "On the day I record, I might get up and work in the garden from 6:30 to 12:30, then go to Chapmanville and record two shows, and maybe not leave till after 11:00 P.M., and I'll feel fine," she said.
"Sometimes I stop and think, I can't believe I feel this good."
She plans to go to the July 10 diabetes coalition meeting at 11 a.m. at the Chapmanville Municipal Building. "If I can help other people feel this good, I will," she said. "We've got to start educating people, even if we do it one on one."
She lives just over the Lincoln County border in Harts, "but there's no reason we couldn't make a chapter right here in my neighborhood. I've already got people interested."
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" was written with the help of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.