How Luther Vandross Inspired Me to Become a Diabetes Advocate
Max ‘Mr. Divabetic’ Szadek is the founder of Divabetic, a nonprofit group with a focus on diabetes wellness, the host of its popular monthly podcast, Diabetes Late Nite, and the former personal assistant of the late legendary R&B singer, Luther Vandross. Assisting Vandross with an unexpected diabetes-related health crisis inspired Szadek to transition to a career in diabetes advocacy. Read more about Max’s story and efforts to raise awareness about Type 2 diabetes and his personal experiences with Luther Vandross.
My name is Max Szadek and I am a diabetes advocate and the founder of the nonprofit Divabetic. I have an older brother living with Type 1 and several extended family members living with Type 2 diabetes. Given my family history, you’d think I would be well-suited to help a colleague manage their disease, but I wasn’t.
I was the personal assistant to the late legendary R&B singer, Luther Vandross. In April 2003, Luther suffered a massive stroke related to mismanaged Type 2 diabetes. When I showed up to work, I found him on the floor of his apartment. I’ll never forget the first words the doctor said to me when we exited the ambulance — Luther’s stroke could have been avoided. At first, I didn’t understand what he meant because I didn’t know about the link between stroke and diabetes. But as the weeks progressed, without much improvement of Luther’s condition, the doctor’s words began to haunt me and I realized the depth of my ignorance about diabetes management.
In hindsight, Luther had over 50 people support him and his music, but when it came to managing his diabetes, he chose to handle it alone. In my opinion, this choice turned out to be a grave mistake. Though I saw him every day, I was completely unaware of his health and diabetes. Occasionally, he’d ask me to pick up his prescriptions, including those for high blood pressure, but that was the extent of our conversation. I assumed he didn’t need any extra help if he had his medication.
My shame quickly turned to anger when the media failed to mention Type 2 diabetes in reports about Luther’s health. I felt if I’d known about the serious complications of Type 2 diabetes earlier, then maybe I could have offered to help him manage it. I also think not reporting about Luther’s diabetes complications was a missed opportunity to educate and empower his fans who are primarily African American women over the age of 40. Women in this group are disproportionately affected by diabetes and this was a unique opportunity to spread awareness about this condition.
The Founding of Divabetic
This experience inspired me to leave the entertainment industry and become a diabetes advocate. At first, my goal was to share Luther’s story and my experience to help others “keep their house a home” by teaching them how to prevent diabetes complications.
As a result, I started Divabetic. The word “Divabetic” popped into my head after watching Luther’s friend, Patti LaBelle, reveal she was living with Type 2 diabetes at his tribute concert. I recall thinking she’s not just a “diabetic” but also a “diva,” thus beginning my work in diabetes advocacy.
Suddenly, women with diabetes had a whole ‘New Attitude’ with Patti LaBelle as their inspiration. Being a “diva” meant performing at your best and being a “divabetic” meant creating your own health care entourage to help you look your best inside and out.
I started selling t-shirts with the word ‘Divabetic’ on the front and the phrase ‘Sugar’s the Bitch, Not Me’ on the back to raise money for those who needed insulin pumps. During this time, I attended several conventional, but frankly, boring diabetes lectures and knew I wasn’t the only one who had these thoughts, judging from the number of empty chairs and the sound of people snoring in the audience. What I disliked most about these lectures was that most of the speakers presented diabetes education in a A to Z format. So, if someone in the audience had a question about the sexual health issues then they’d have to wait until the presenter reached the letter ’S’ before they’d receive an answer. I don’t know about you, but that seems like too long a wait for me!
I decided if I ever had the chance to host my own diabetes events, I’d begin with fun discussions on hot topics, similar to the Wendy Williams Show, followed by a Q&A segment with local certified diabetes educators before following a standard agenda.
My experiences working for Luther Vandross and in the regional theater came in handy as the popularity of our Divabetic t-shirts grew to include diabetes outreach programming. I knew a name like ‘Divabetic’ required glitter in the form of giveaways such as free lipstick and hosting Girls’ Night Out events that revolved around topics like diabetes and relationships.
I began to broaden the appeal of diabetes education and empowerment by adding beauty and makeover services to my Divabetic program. Our quick beauty pick-me-ups not only improved spirits of the women who followed our organization but helped give them the confidence boost to address the challenges of living with diabetes. With the help of certified diabetes educators, I blended my makeover services with my own diva brand of diabetes educational programming.
One local Divabetic event led to another until I was asked to submit a proposal for a national outreach program in 2006. I proposed to travel to the cities where I toured with Luther to promote Divabetic. That proposal called “Divabetic: Makeover Your Diabetes,” turned into a three-year commitment to conduct diabetes outreach primarily for women.
Our program reached many thousands of women and their loved ones in 10 major US cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, Miami, and Los Angeles. The core component of our program was called “Makeover Maze” and featured six different diabetes stations offering personalized education. Participants learned about fitness, the ABCs of diabetes, nutrition, goal setting, beauty, and sex. We had other activities such as games about diabetes, fashion shows, talent contests, giveaways, and appearances by local celebrities. We hosted our events at locations like Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, and Gotham Hall in New York City.
How I’ve Been Able to Make a Positive Impact
I also had the opportunity to host events at hospitals and expos. My team of diabetes educators, fashion and beauty experts, and stylists developed various themes for our events. One of our events was “Golden Girls”-themed, where four participants portrayed the characters of the show to discuss key messages in diabetes health care. For example, the character Blanche discussed how managing your blood sugars can jump start your sex drive; Rose showed no question is too dumb to ask your doctor; Sophia discussed what you should carry in your purse to manage your diabetes, and Dorothy talked about how to set limits as a caregiver.
I think my ability to develop colorful programming and content that resonates with women impacted by diabetes stems from my own experience living with psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis. I understand how disheartening it is to have something go wrong when you’re trying everything to improve your health. A pat on the back or a good laugh helps a lot on those days. A temperature drop in New York City to below freezing caused me to break out with psoriasis all over my back and legs, which was painful and exhausting. It occurred despite the constant application of medicated lotions, shampoos, body washes, daily oral medications, and complete adherence to dietary restrictions. Experiences like this are why I strive to comfort, connect, and cheer on anyone impacted by diabetes.
I often interview people at fairs and parades in New York City about their experience with diabetes and ask them to play games about diabetes or discuss the hidden sugars in their favorite foods. One of my YouTube videos shot at the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island went viral and received over 279,000 views. I hope the reason for the high number of views is because people are interested in learning about diabetes. Our monthly podcast, Diabetes Late Nite, in which we talk about diabetes education, play games, and tell patient stories with musical inspiration is now in its 8th year.
Divabetic’s newest program, Clued Inn, combines diabetes education with the fun and excitement of gaming. It debuts in New York City on National Diabetes Alert Day, Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Clued Inn will be the first-ever Diabetes & Heart Disease Escape Room. It provides a great opportunity for people with diabetes and their loved ones to practice working together as a team in the event of diabetes-related health crises. It’s also a great way to prompt discussions about how diabetes medication works, how to treat high and low blood sugar, and living with diabetes on a daily basis. I hope you will join me!