S. Epatha Merkerson learned she had Type 2 diabetes at NBC4’s health expo. (Merck)

When actress S. Epatha Merkerson got her blood sugar tested at the NBC4 Health and Fitness Expo in D.C. in 2003, she thought she was just doing a public service.

“See, this doesn’t hurt,” Merkerson remembers saying into the camera to encourage Washingtonians to try it too. She was feeling good about herself after the segment, and when the doctor who’d administered the test asked her to come back, Merkerson figured he wanted to take a photo together.

Instead, he told her to make an appointment with her physician in New York.

Her subsequent diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes shouldn’t have come as a surprise, says Merkerson, who’s best known for her role on “Law & Order” as no-nonsense Lt. Anita Van Buren: “I had a family history, and I was eating like a 12-year-old.” Her father had died from diabetes complications, her grandmother had lost her sight and her uncle had amputations.

But like so many Americans, Merkerson hadn’t been proactive in her health care.

Over the past 11 years, she’s worked diligently to change that for herself. This spring, she teamed up with drugmaker Merck to launch “America’s Diabetes Challenge: Get to Your Goals” (americasdiabeteschallenge.com), a program urging everyone with Type 2 diabetes to talk to their doctors, make plans and figure out how to stick with them.

Last week, the nationwide tour brought Merkerson back to D.C., where she appeared at an American Diabetes Association event at Arena Stage. Her message? “This is a manageable disease, and you can be in charge,” she says.

In a diabetes treatment program, Merkerson notes, patients are responsible for two separate but equally important factors: diet and exercise. Now 61, she’s much more judicious about what she eats — few fried foods and lots of salads — and makes a concerted effort to be active.

“What works for me is walking,” says Merkerson, who strives for 4 to 5 miles a few times a week.

She also keeps tabs on her A1C number, which is a measurement of one’s blood sugar level over the past two to three months. By discussing the results with her doctor, Merkerson knows when she needs to tweak her behavior.

“As you get older, it’s harder to change habits,” Merkerson admits. But for a role model, she has her 87-year-old mom, a Type 2 diabetic who celebrated her birthday two years ago by skydiving in high heels. “She’s one of the healthiest people I know.”


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