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March 24, 2017
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Emerging Lane | Brittany Martin, Diabetes Warrior

Young Eastern Kentucky native has a passion for fighting regional problem

By Abby Laub

Brittany Martin works with a patient at a diabetes screening as part of her work as an AmericaCorps Vista volunteer.

Brittany Martin works with a patient at a diabetes screening as part of her work as an AmericaCorps Vista volunteer.

Not every young adult feels compelled to remind Grandma to check her blood sugar, but Brittany Martin, 25, is not a normal young adult. Martin, a Hazard native who is diabetes coordinator for Big Sandy Diabetes Coalition in Prestonburg, works the front lines every day in the battle with diabetes – a disease so prevalent in the region where she was raised.

“We all just think our grandparents get diabetes, but that’s not the case,” Martin said. “Diabetes is especially prevalent in southeastern Kentucky, with an average of 13 percent of adults diagnosed. In Pike County, at least 16 percent of adults have been diagnosed, and an estimated 138,000 Kentuckians are thought to be living with undiagnosed diabetes.”

Brittany Martin

Brittany Martin

It’s these numbers, including many in her own family, that ignited a passion in Martin to help others combat the complicated disease.

“I’m the first ever in my family to receive a bachelor’s degree, and I developed a passion for helping people,” Martin said. “I like work that gives me meaning. That’s just really what shaped me. There’s no better feeling than when you’ve helped someone lower their blood sugar. They’re just so thankful.”

That passion drew her to a year of grueling but rewarding post-college work as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer. A registered phlebotomist, Martin graduated from the University of Kentucky in 2014 with a dual degree in biology and sociology, and spent most of the voluntary year conducting diabetes screenings, patient follow-ups and educational classes.  It ultimately landed her the job at Big Sandy Diabetes Coalition.

Much of her work was supported by grants and training from the UK Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS), which facilitates interdisciplinary and community-engaged health research with a focus on Appalachia. Martin received further funding and research training through the CCTS Community Leadership Institute of Kentucky.

CLIK is a leadership development training program offered by the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health, the Kentucky Office of Rural Health, and the UK CCTS Community Engagement and Research Program.

‘Skilled leader who loves the community’

“When we were developing CLIK and picturing who potential participants in Appalachia might be, Brittany was exactly who we were hoping to find,” said Fran Feltner, director of the UK Center of Excellence in Rural Health in Hazard. “Her success has added a skilled leader who loves the community and wants to discover and share evidence-based interventions to bring about health outcome improvements.”

Martin also had to work as a waitress to support herself last year, all while studying for the Medical College Admission Test and Optometry Admission Test. Her ultimate goal is to become a practicing optometrist in a rural community. Most of her work at Big Sandy now revolves around optometry.

“A lot of times patients are so focused on their blood sugar they forget their eyes and teeth,” Martin explained. “Regular diabetic eye exams are needed. They might have diabetic changes in eyes or develop glaucoma.”

The area served by the Big Sandy Diabetes Coalition has a diagnosis rate of 15.2 percent, compared to 10.6 percent statewide. Overall, the state’s Appalachian diabetes rate is 13.6 percent, according to the 2015 Kentucky Diabetes Report. The pre-diabetic rate is roughly 25 percent.

Other Kentuckians “just lump it together with our culture,” she said. “They think, Appalachia, that’s where all of the problems are – they don’t have jobs, they’re more obese, they have more diabetes. It’s just the status quo for our region: It’s not if you get diabetes, it’s when.”

Big Sandy aims to reduce new
cases of diabetes and treat undiagnosed cases.

“We also help people manage their diabetes,” Martin said. “It’s a disease of complications, so we want to help them maintain their blood sugar so it’s not dangerous to their organs.”

The nonprofit also offers many classes and local resources.

“We try to do classes and create a social element to it for accountability so they’re not alone,” Martin explained, adding that it ultimately is a cultural hurdle. “Our culture is very much family based and food based so a lot of the foods that we are accustomed to are fried or extremely carb loaded, or fat and grease. So when you go to your grandma’s, you know that you’re going to eat fried chicken and biscuits or whatever she makes. It’s what’s you’re raised on. You don’t want to hurt grandma’s feelings.”

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