Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at just 21, Georgia mom Mary Van Doorn has become even more motivated to care for her health as a result of parenthood and building an online community called Sugar Mama Strong.

By Maressa Brown
August 26, 2020
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Mary Van Doorn was just 21 when she was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a chronic condition that affects how the body metabolizes its main sources of fuel: glucose, or sugar. While the condition is often linked to obesity, genetics play a role, as well, as evidenced by the fact that Van Doorn had many family members with the condition. "Everyone else was diagnosed way older than me in their 40s," recalls the Dacula, Georgia-based mom. "And I was diagnosed very young, at a routine physical. I wasn't sick. I didn't have symptoms. So, I didn't really take it seriously for a long time."

But her journey was only just beginning, and motherhood, family, and community would all play a part in flipping the switch for Van Doorn.

Mary Van Doorn works out with her two kids.
Courtesy of Mary Van Doorn

The Highs and Lows of Early Motherhood

After grieving a pregnancy loss when she was 20 weeks along, and deciding to try again to conceive, Van Doorn told her doctors she wanted to go on insulin. And when she found out she was expecting her now 16-year-old son, Ben, she made the decision to see a specialist. "My entire pregnancy I was terrified basically until around the halfway mark when I had an ultrasound, and they showed me that everything was good," she says. "I think Ben gave me a thumbs-up from the womb like in an ultrasound picture."

Van Doorn also felt on track physically. "My A1C was normal," she says. "I ate well, I took my medicine. I was very regimented. I did everything that I was supposed to do because his life depended on it."

The now mom of two recalls how her pregnancy served as motivation to care for herself more than she had previously. "As moms, we are willing to do for our children what we are sometimes not willing to do for ourselves," she says. "And that was for sure the case for me when I was pregnant with him."

But once her son was born, the stressors of raising a newborn took over and Van Doorn says she went back to her old habits. "I put myself on the back burner," she remembers. "I threw myself into motherhood, which I think is such a common thing for new moms. Forget about the diabetes part—being a new mom, you're like, 'Oh, I'll shower in three days.' I went back to not always taking my medicine and not eating the best things, because I wasn't sleeping, and I was just a mess because I had a new baby."

But as her son grew, Van Doorn found time to work out and make time for herself again. By the time she welcomed her now 10-year-old daughter, her diabetes was under control, and she had a healthy pregnancy. Still, it wasn't until Van Doorn's daughter was 2 years old that the Georgia mom started what she refers to as her "current journey to health." "Both kids were growing fast and very active, toddling around," says Van Doorn. "And I was tired all the time."

Wanting to keep up with her children—and for them to grow up to remember her as an active mom—served as a major motivator to make concrete changes.

A Journey to Health

Van Doorn adopted an aggressive new workout plan that included not only taking Zumba but getting certified to teach it while also training for a 5K, a 10K, and then a half marathon. But the nutrition piece of the puzzle wasn't in place. "I learned how to manipulate any nutrition plan that I was on," recalls Van Doorn. "So even though the scale was dropping, and I was still losing weight, I was still eating crap."

Dieting this way left her feeling sick and tired. "I was taking a nap every day, because my blood sugars were high," says Van Doorn. "I was peeing all the time. I just really wasn't feeling good. And I was like, 'You gotta get it together.'"

After seeing a nurse practitioner who told her she feared Van Doorn might have a heart attack, she cried the whole way home—then resolved to take care of herself in every possible way. "I thought, 'It's not enough just to do the exercise part,'" she says. "'I have to do the nutrition part. I have to do the mental-emotional part, which I've been ignoring for a long time. And I have to hold myself accountable.'"

Finding a Support System

Shortly after making up her mind to check all of the boxes and improve her wellness overall, Van Doorn began looking online for support groups for diabetics and came up short. As a result, she was inspired to start her own. "I thought, 'I'm going to make the group that I need,'" says Van Doorn. "I said, 'I need accountability, I need positivity, I need people who get me, and I need it to be women only because there are things that diabetes does to a woman that doesn't happen for a man, and I need a place that I can share freely and openly about those things.' And that's how Sugar Mama Strong was born."

Four and a half years later, the group boasts more than 4,000 members who call the support they receive through the community "awe-inspiring." Members do a daily fasting blood sugar roll call and participate in virtual workouts and Zoom calls. "I have checked my blood sugars consistently because of this group, and because of the ladies in it," says Van Doorn. "We have members all over the world. And it's been a crazy ride. It's more than I ever thought it was going to be."

Last year, Van Doorn was inspired to take Sugar Mama Strong to the next level by launching her own fitness and wellness company with the same name.

A Zoom meeting with members of Sugar Mama Strong
Courtesy of Mary Van Doorn

How Family Remains a Major Motivator

Van Doorn's family continues to serve as a powerful support system and source of inspiration. "It's an amazing thing when you have the right support in your life, and you have someone that really believes in you and loves you unconditionally," says Van Doorn. "My husband is my biggest cheerleader, and I couldn't do without him."

Meanwhile, her kids have written essays for school about their mom making healthy choices and inspiring people. "It's such a cool thing to see how my choices affect their choices, affect what they share, affect how they talk to their friends," notes Van Doorn. "When my 16-year-old, on a summer vacation, gets up at 5 a.m. so he can work out with me, just because he wants to, that's a big deal."

Moments like those are why Van Doorn attributes much of her motivation to manage her type 2 diabetes—not just for herself but for her kids. "If something, God forbid, happened to me and I were to die young, I would never want them to think it was because I didn't fight to be there for them and to be their mom," explains Van Doorn. "I would never want them to think that I chose an unhealthy lifestyle over them. I want them to know that I fought every single day to be here and be their mom."

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