CHARLESTON -- Melba Clark of Lilbourn was looking to lose some weight and breathe easier when the 66-year-old's doctor put her in touch with a registered dietician from the Mississippi County Health Department.
After attending only two monthly sessions with the dietitian, Clark, who has chronic bronchitis and emphysema, has lost 12 pounds and said she can breathe better.
"She just told me about calories and to count them and how many I could eat a day," Clark said about how the dietitian helped her lose weight.
Clark said the advice she received has paid off, and she is now more conscious of what she eats.
"(Before) I would just go in the kitchen and get something to eat, and now I think about it before. I ask myself, 'Do I really want something to eat, or is it just something to do?' Or I just get something better for me like a piece of fruit," Clark said.
Now, that Mississippi County dietitian and another are hoping to do the same for diabetics throughout Southeast Missouri as she did for Clark.
A recent grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health allowed Mississippi County Health Department's registered dietitians Rachelle Johnson and Myra Gunn to be recognized by the American Diabetes Association as licensed and certified diabetes educators, making Mississippi County the only health department in the area to offer free diabetes education.
Johnson said the program is very needed in the area.
"But the problem is a lot of people don't know about it," Johnson said. To become certified, the dietitians had to meet specific criteria, Johnson said.
"We had to collect data over six months and submit the information to the American Diabetes Association. We had to put together statistics on how many people go through the program," Johnson said.
Being certified means the dietitians can provide one-on-one nutrition counseling for diabetics -- both type I and II -- in addition to pre-diabetics and those who would like to be counseled on weight loss, Johnson said.
"A lot of doctors will refer their patients if they're brand new diabetics, and we'll teach patients how to use the blood glucose monitor. We also provide people who may be uninsured with a monitor and box of strips to get started," Johnson said.
In addition the dietitians conduct insulin instruction and group classes on topics ranging from diabetic foot care and nutrition to exercise and medicines, Johnson said. Lipid profile, which is a group of blood tests that determines risk of coronary heart disease, are also taken, she said.
"We try to help them set goals for themselves and start working on things they feel they need to work on," Johnson said. "And if someone doesn't have insurance, we'll help them apply for programs that will provide medical service."
Transportation is also provided to patients who need to see their doctors not only in Mississippi County but in other towns like Sikeston, New Madrid and Cape Girardeau, Johnson said.
"The transportation is a big issue, and a lot of people aren't utilizing it," Johnson said.
Some patients are referred to the dietitians, but patients who are interested in participating in the program are welcome to walk-in or contact the Mississippi County Health Department in Charleston, Johnson said. Johnson and Gunn also make monthly visits to local doctor's offices to work with patients.
Marilyn Chapman, a nurse practitioner at Family Preference Health Care Clinic in Matthews, said the diabetes education program is extremely helpful to Southeast Missouri residents.
"The girls are very informed," Chapman said. "They really take it from the patient's perspective, which makes it work."
Chapman said Johnson and Gunn spend time with the patients, talking about their patterns of eating, labwork results and their diagnoses.
"They will form-fit an education program based on their (patients) likes, dislikes and conditions -- and it seems to work," Chapman said.
Chapman said her patients seem to be pleased with the program.
"Those people who come really like it and say it's been more beneficial to them than any other program they've attended and that's because they work from the patient's perspective," Chapman said.
"I recommend the program to anyone," she said.
When the grant ends in two years, the program should be self-sustained, Johnson said. That's why Johnson and Gunn are trying to spread the word to the public
"As far as we're concerned, if you need the education, we'll provide it," Johnson said. "And the best part is we're free."