Diabetes damages a person's body, "so you never quite get over it," Rev. Patterson said. "I can't ever take a vacation from it. If I quit eating right for a few days, diabetes lets me know loud and clear that it's there." His vision might get blurry, his breath short.
"You live within certain realities. You pay a big price for diabetes."
You control it or it controls you
"I want Donovan to understand that it's up to him whether he controls diabetes or it controls him," Patterson said. "I don't want him thinking, I've got this because of genetics, or because I'm African-American, or because God did this to me, so there's nothing I can do."
That idea is dangerous, he said. It makes people not try.
"Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease and a cultural disease," Patterson said. "The culture of processed fast food and lack of exercise affects you, regardless of race. And exercise and healthy food will help you, regardless of race."
At the same time, "as a community, we've got to look at the things that make it hard for people to make healthy choices. People's choices are affected by what they can afford to buy for themselves or what's available to them, and in many low-income areas, healthy food may not be readily available, for instance."
People with less money get diabetes more frequently, a lot of research has shown. In West Virginia, the per capita income is 30 percent lower for black people than white people, according to Census data.
In 2007, 14.7 percent of African American adults had diabetes nationwide, compared with 9.8 percent of whites. In West Virginia, the gap was smaller, 13.3 percent for blacks, compared with 10.9 percent for whites, according to CDC.
God didn't do this
Donovan said he has asked God a few times why he got diabetes, but not often. "I know why I got it," he said.
"I hope he won't be thinking God did this to him," his grandfather said. "God has certain natural laws, and one is: If you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight.
"If I've been constantly eating the wrong foods and too much of them, and I say, 'God, why did you allow me to get this?' then what I'm doing is asking God to violate his own natural laws. I'm asking God to let me do whatever I want to and not suffer any consequences.
For now, Donovan is surrounded by people who encourage him to do what he needs to do. "At least 25 percent of the people in my church have diabetes or some other severe chronic illness," Patterson said. "There's so much diabetes around, we could start thinking it's normal, if some of our members didn't show us it can be prevented."
One of the praise singers, Dreama Williams, said her doctor warned her last spring that she was headed for diabetes. She joined the Public Employees Insurance Agency's Weight Management program and lowered her blood sugar by losing 25 pounds. "It's just something you make up your mind to do, and you do it," she said.
"I'm concentrating on my music," Donovan said. Tim Courts, who plays with the Bob Thompson Unit, has been a mentor. So are Bobby Smith, Jonathan Wesley, Johnathan Smith, all first-rate players.
"Once you've got diabetes, you learn to manage it the best you can," Rev. Patterson said, "and you try to find something you love to do, and you do it. And for him right now, that's music."
Reach Kate Long at katel...@wvgazette.com or 304-343-1884.
"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.