Community engagement really enriched our reporting on Type 2 diabetes

Published on
September 8, 2022

We had done months of studying on our topic of Type 2 diabetes. We had talked to doctors and researchers. We read deeply on decades of research. We did all our homework for our Spanish- and English-language radio documentaries and feature stories.   

But Type 2 diabetes is a disease that afflicts our San Antonio communities. We had to make sure we integrated community engagement in our research.  

It sounds so simple and obvious, but it’s outside of the norm. We’re reporters and we know how to access people for our stories, but this was going to take a paradigm shift. We had to do something that — for us — was kind of unorthodox and kind of radical. Our every moment of research and storytelling up this point had been guided by data and empirical evidence. Now we were entering a more uncontrolled context. 

Could this plan work? We had the thought to set up a table at a park near the West Side of San Antonio and meet people where they are and talk to them about a disease that is ubiquitous. The West Side of San Antonio is an area inhabited by mostly middle and lower working-class folks — members of our community who we know have lived with diabetes for generations. 

But we also know that Type 2 diabetes is a disease shrouded in stigma, victim-blaming, and secrecy. We set up our table thinking we’d be lucky if we got two or three people to talk to us. 

Instead, we recorded over two dozen interviews before we packed it up and left the park. 

We could not have predicted the effects the community engagement portion of this project would have on our research, and on our resolve to tell the story of the barriers to health care for those with Type 2 diabetes. That breezy, temperate day last spring brought out many people who came out to the park’s walking track and the Earth Day celebration going on in the adjoining tennis courts. 

We set up a table festooned with bottles of water and small potted seedlings we grew ourselves — tomato and cucumber plants. 

It took no effort to attract passersby to our table. They seemed drawn mostly to the plants on the table and our spiffy Texas Public Radio sign. As soon as we told them about our project, nearly every single person who came up to the table had something to share. Even people who didn’t think they were directly impacted by diabetes were often the son or daughter or grandchild of someone who had Type 2 diabetes. 

There were teachers and even a school nurse who shared anecdotes with us that day. The school nurse demonstrated for us on her own smiling daughter how she scans children for acanthosis nigricans — a darkening and thickening of patches of the skin — usually in the back of the neck — that is a tell-tale sign of a risk for diabetes. It was something we’d read about in our research. We’d read pages and pages of data and yearly reports, but here was someone showing us exactly what the process is like. 

We’d wager that anyone who has ever had to report on Type 2 diabetes has had the same thought we did — that the story is overwhelming, trailing with it a host of attendant issues. It seems sometimes like an impossible topic to fully grasp.

What invariably grounded us and brought us back to the center and to the focus of the story each time were the people in our San Antonio community. 

Another critical piece of our community outreach came by way of a radio-call-out, brief promos that aired throughout the day on Texas Public Radio’s San Antonio station, asking people to call or send an email sharing their story about Type 2 diabetes. 

Once again, we were struck by the number of people who would take the time to write or call. 

We received an email from Angelo Bedolla. He shared that he was now blind because of Type 2 diabetes. We arranged to meet him. He shared a litany of issues related to Type 2 diabetes. He was born in Mexico and, although he has lived in Chicago and San Antonio for all his life, the bureaucracy and his own personal situation prevent him from getting the care he needs. First came the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes after Angel woke up with one side of his body entirely numb. Then came COVID. Angel had to be hospitalized for four weeks. He was released from the hospital with most of his vision gone. 

We hear and read about Type 2 diabetes all the time. We see the television commercials for this or that medication with its laundry list of side effects. It has become such a fact of life, particularly in our communities in San Antonio that are predominantly people of color. It’s easy to forget the very human side of the story — the individuals. Every single one we met wanted to share their experiences and information — and perhaps also a kind of hard-won hindsight.

Felipe Quiroga shared his story of seeing his own mother afflicted by diabetes. As a younger man, he took her to her dialysis treatment at the clinic that he would later frequent as a diabetes patient with renal issues.  He also shared harrowing stories about the amputation of his toes and part of his foot. The man cut a handsome figure — but one undoubtedly wizened by the ravages of this merciless disease.  Wheelchair bound now (because of the amputation) he is cared for by an attentive wife and spends time with grandchildren he hopes he can navigate away from the ills of poor nutrition and the denial of the vicelike hold diabetes has had on generations of Mexican Americans. 

These are just some of the people we interviewed for our story. It’s easy to call up PR departments and talk to experts — and we’re grateful for what they contribute to our work, too. However, engaging with people in our community who are impacted by diabetes gave our reporting a richness and a sense of authenticity. Community engagement gave our project substantive first-person accounts from people somehow surviving the scourge that is Type 2 diabetes. They all told us their greatest hope is that their stories can help others in our community.