Remembering Percy Sledge, the Diabetes Educator

I was very sad to learn that Percy Sledge passed away this week at the age of 74, and not just because the “Golden Voice of Soul” had been silenced. Of course, he’s best  remembered for the all-time R&B classic “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Percy had been working as a hospital orderly and performing in nightclubs in northern Alabama before his signature song” became a multi-platinum hit.

Just before he turned 60, Percy was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The CDC says more than 29 million Americans have diabetes, the majority by far have type 2 and one in four don’t even know they have the condition even though it may be doing serious health damage to their kidneys, their heart, their circulation and their vision. While you know Percy the singer, I knew Percy the health educator. He dedicated many of the later years of his life to educating people about the risk of diabetes, with particular focus on his community, the African American community. It brought back his experience working as a hospital orderly, where he always tried to smile and do his best to make his ailing patients feel comfortable, if not better at least happier.

Among the diabetes education programs Percy supported was the “Diabetes Diner Talk” radio show which toured the country, visiting cities including New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver. He gave numerous talks, did countless radio and TV appearance and speeches supporting diabetes awareness causes.

Like many other Americans,  Mr. Sledge was unaware he had type 2 diabetes until his doctor made the diagnosis. He had not had any symptoms.  Over the years, Percy was  able to control his condition by adhering to a  program of diet, exercise and the proper medication. Percy was a very kind and generous man and I loved talking to him about his music. He did nix my idea that he cover “Unchained Melody”—he didn’t think he could hit the high note. But he used his fame and familiarity with people to provide information to improve and prolong their lives.

Ironically, his message had special resonance with me, as I myself was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in the past year and am even talking metformin now—the first medication Percy started on, which worked well for him and so far is keeping my A1c levels in line.

Percy leaves a huge legacy in music, and besides the obvious all-timer,  he did have other hits like “Warm and Tender Love,” “Take Time to Know Her” and “Out of Left Field.” His music career never made him rich, but he lived a good, full life with a happy marriage and kids that went to college. And rather than hide his medical condition, he used it as a teaching opportunity to help others live better lives, too.