MARLO THOMAS
12/11/2013 11:31 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

On The Verge Of A Diabetic Coma, She Realized She Couldn't Wait Any Longer To Take Off The Weight

Fountelroy Photography

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a woman who was diagnosed with diabetes, and fought back against her disease by losing over 100 pounds! -- Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

It was a wake-up call that no one wants to wake up to -- but that's exactly what Elizabeth Mwanga got, when her mother discovered her unconscious on her living room couch.

"I'd been having abdominal pain for a few days," Elizabeth recalled. "It was pretty severe, but I was scared to go to the doctor. By the time my mother found me, I hadn't eaten for two days and I couldn't even go to the bathroom. My body was shutting down."

"I don’t remember a lot from that day, but I must have been in pretty bad shape because the emergency room was full when I got there and I skipped ahead of everyone. They took me straight to the ICU."

Elizabeth was on the verge of a diabetic coma. A seemingly shocking diagnosis for a woman who’d just seen a doctor, had her blood levels tested and was told she was fine -- despite the fact that at 5'2", she weighed 210 pounds.

"The doctor noticed my blood sugar was very high that day," she continued, "but he just asked what I'd had for breakfast. When I listed off the fried eggs, the bacon and bagel, he said, 'It's probably because you ate a lot this morning.' He didn't do any follow up testing, even after I told him there was a history of diabetes in my family. He never said a thing about my weight. He just told me I was healthy."

But that day in the ICU, it was clear that Elizabeth was anything but healthy. Her blood sugar was nearly 1000, ten times what’s considered normal.

"My parents are very religious and they prayed over me. Sometimes I’d wake up and it would just break my heart."

It took four days of round the clock treatment to bring the young woman to a place where doctors would even consider moving her to a regular hospital room. And when they did, they told her that she had Type 1.5 diabetes and that she’d live the rest of her life on medication.

"The doctor said that they were going to put me on insulin four times a day," Elizabeth said. "I'm a busy woman. I had a big job. And I’m afraid of needles! I thought, How am I going to do this? But when I was in the ICU, I saw the guy next to me die. I watched them wheel him out with a sheet over his head. That's when I knew I had to change things. I wasn't going to let that happen to me. And I set a goal of taking off 75 pounds."

Elizabeth had struggled with her weight most of her life and had tried a series of yo-yo diets that seemed to slow down her metabolism even more. And then after an emotional break-up with her first love, she pretty much gave up on the idea of being thin. If anything, she wanted to protect herself from being hurt again, so she gave in to her constant cravings.

"I had moved from New York to Miami. I just wanted to change my life. But I didn't have any friends down there, so food became my friend. Subway was always having two for one specials on their foot longs and I was living alone, so I wasn't sharing!"

And while after a few years, Elizabeth found her way back to New York and to a new job working for the National Kidney Foundation -- she’d never found a way to get off the weight.

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Elizabeth Mwanga

"I was a typical New Yorker," she laughed. "I went out to eat every night. The only thing you'd find in my refrigerator was orange soda. I didn't even know how to boil an egg. But I had a lot of time to think while I was in the hospital, and I was determined not only to lose the weight, but to not have to take insulin more than once a day."

So Elizabeth began by following the doctor's instructions. She went to a nutritionist and began following a diet plan. She even bought diabetic cookbooks. But week after week, she'd watch the scale and it would remain at the same number.

"I started keeping track of everything I ate on an Excel spreadsheet, and I correlated it with my blood sugar. What I saw was that every time I ate a refined carbohydrate, my blood sugar would spike. And when I cut down on them, my blood sugar would level out and I'd begin to lose weight. I started faxing my spreadsheets to my endocrinologist and calling him once a week. He earned his money with me!"

Slowly but surely, and under her doctor’s supervision, Elizabeth began to remove more and more refined carbs from her diet and slowly, but surely, she made her way to a gym. She began in the back of a packed room, quietly trying to keep up with cardio routines, and as she built her confidence, stepped up her exercise to four or five days a week.

She also threw away the diabetic cookbooks and turned on the Food Network. "I'd watch the chefs to learn cooking techniques," Elizabeth explained, "and then I'd go to the farmers market in Manhattan and buy fresh foods that I could experiment with. I'd never eaten a vegetable unless it was covered with butter and cheese, but I started getting into them, and I couldn't stop cooking."

Soon Elizabeth began throwing elaborate, but healthy, dinner parties for her friends and within 19 months, she watched her dress size drop from size 22 to size 2. She’d lost 105 pounds and the doctors told her she no longer needed to take insulin.

"If I go back to my old ways, my blood sugar will begin to rise again. I realized that having diabetes is a 24/7 management condition. And because I'm the one living with it, it was my job to learn everything I could, so I could get it under control."

And now she's taking everything she learned and making it her life's work. Elizabeth has developed an informational website for others with diabetes -- a resource that includes lists of high glycemic foods that can cause problems for diabetics, super foods that can help to lower blood sugar, and recipes she’s created in her own kitchen.

She's become so well known for her healthy cooking, that she ended up on the very stage where she had watched her favorite chefs -- when she was cast on a special edition of the Food Network show, “Chopped”, called Cook Your Butt Off.

Her next step is to bring other patients and doctors together -- to communicate the way she and her own endocrinologist did. She’s developing a social network for doctors and patients with diabetes which will include a subscription component, where doctors can monitor their patient’s health online and through a mobile application.

"I feel like I need to share all the research I've done," Elizabeth explained. "I didn't have guidance. I had to figure this out on my own. If you have a chronic condition, you can get to a point of hopelessness. People need to realize they have so much more control over their lives than they believe. If I could do this, in the state I was in, anyone can."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Elizabeth Mwanga was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She was diagnosed with Type 1.5 diabetes. People with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin.

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