Medical Hero Story: LuAnne Bonanno & Defeating Diabetes

There’s very little a worried soon-to-be grandmother can do to safeguard the health of her expectant daughter and her unborn grandchild, but LuAnne Bonanno was determined to do what she could.

So when LuAnne’s oldest daughter was diagnosed with gestational diabetes early in her first pregnancy, LuAnne decided it was time to take action against the disease that she herself had struggled with for decades. Her plan: participating in a clinical trial.

For LuAnne, a 56-year-old farmer in Methuen, Mass., the memory of her own diagnosis with diabetes is still vivid. “I remember being diagnosed with gestational diabetes and seeing those red letters on my chart saying, ‘High-risk OB’,” she says. “At that point you’re not just worried about yourself; you’re worried about your child. When my daughter was diagnosed, I felt that way all over again.”

During each of her three pregnancies LuAnne developed gestational diabetes that required as many as five shots of insulin each day. While the disease abated after she gave birth to her first two daughters, it developed into Type 2 diabetes after her third daughter was born.

For the most part LuAnne says her diabetes has been manageable. For years she has been able to manage her condition with a single dose each day by watching her diet and staying active.

Consequently, although she helped organize charity walks to raise funds and awareness about diabetes, LuAnne says she never felt compelled to participate in a clinical trial until her daughter was diagnosed.

At that point, she says, she began searching for ways to help. “I kept asking myself, ‘Is there anything I can do to help her or make this easier for my grandchild?’ I guess this was my way of doing something.”

LuAnne was accepted into her first clinical trial, which assessed the impact of salt levels on kidney function in diabetics, in 2011. The two-month study required her to eat a special diet, which alternated between high salt and low salt, and to spend two nights in a Boston hospital. During the next two years she signed up for three more trials. One tested the impact of high- and low-salt diets on diabetics’ blood pressure. Another was designed to study sleep apnea in diabetics, but LuAnne’s participation was brief, because she did not meet the study criteria. A third trial was designed to assess the impact of a diabetes medication on blood vessel function.

All the studies required LuAnne to make a one-hour round trip drive into Boston. Sometimes she needed to eat special diets, have frequent blood draws or spend a night or two in the hospital. But participation incentives offset the inconveniences, she says. She is financially compensated for her participation, her parking in Boston is paid for, and the study sponsors provide any special foods she needs during the course of the trial.

What’s more, she says, “I get a real sense of satisfaction out of it. I’m not a scientific person but participating makes me feel more scientific and analytical, and I get the sense I am helping others. I may just be subject No. 8234, but in my mind I know I am helping.”

Today LuAnne is a proud grandmother – her daughter gave birth to a healthy baby boy soon after LuAnne completed her first trial – and she is eagerly awaiting the births of two more grandchildren. Because her two pregnant daughters have both developed gestational diabetes during their pregnancies, LuAnne says she’s eager to find another trial in which to participate.

“I like to think that I am having an impact and that I am contributing to the overall understanding of diabetes,” she says.

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