Growing up, Anthony and Ian Whitington’s father, Geoff, was an energetic and committed dad. Having divorced from the boys’ mother when they were 10 and eight respectively, Geoff, then a BT engineer, gave up his weekends to allow the boys to do whatever they fancied – be it sports or day trips.
Like most men, Geoff was always quick with a joke but grew stubborn as a mule in middle age. When he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetesin 2003 at the age of 51, both he and his sons (by then grown up and moved away) thought little of it.
After all, they were told at the time the disease was ‘manageable’ by tidying up Geoff’s diet, prescribing some pills and keeping a keen eye on his blood sugar. He did this, attempting every fad diet available but never quite managing to keep the weight off and never quite seeing that as a problem.
Over the course of the next decade Geoff’s weight ballooned to 20 stone, exacerbated by excessive snacking during sedentary night shifts in his post-retirement job as a security guard.
They were asking me to sign a contract that said I’d do everything they told me. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for
By 2013 complications had set in: he contracted Charcot Foot – a progressive and gory destruction of the joint – which, in addition to diabetes-related ulcers on his other foot, meant a grave risk of amputation.
He fell into near-depression, withdrawing from visiting his sons and grandchildren. Consigned to an early death from diabetes, he even took to writing a will.
“He was retracting. He wasn’t the same Geoff, no jokes, no banter,” recalls Anthony, now 38. “Reading up, we found out that people who have a foot amputated are expected to live for about two years beyond that. Something needed to be done.”
Anthony, a freelance filmmaker, and Ian, 37, a cameraman, hatched a plan to help their father. The pair also decided to make a documentary,Fixing Dad, to chart Geoff’s progress, which airs on BBC Two tonight.
“I thought they were just calling my bluff,” says Geoff, 64. “They were basically asking me to sign a contract that said I’d do everything they told me. I agreed, but I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.”
The brothers researched the disease – which affects more than 3.6 million people in the UK – drew up a three-pronged attack on Geoff’s fitness, nutritional and mental hurdles, and set a daunting target: that the three of them would complete a the 100-mile Prudential RideLondon-Surrey cycling event in July 2014.
“Dad could barely walk, so running was immediately out, and he wasn’t keen on the body image of swimming, so that left cycling,” Anthony says. “It turned out to be the ideal exercise for him, exerting far less pressure on his feet and easy to get in to.”
They joined him at every turn. On Geoff’s daily cycles, Anthony would either run or ride with him, while Ian filmed. They’d eat together too, measuring their sugar levels after meals. Kebabs and pub lunches were replaced with lean, carbohydrate-free meals.
“The key was taking dad out of his environment, to break his cycle and make him realise what was at stake,” Anthony says. “We organised a group camping trip to Spain, with our bikes, and at the end we sat him down and showed him a load of family photos, of him as a young man and of his grandchildren.”
In the documentary, Anthony and Ian express guilt at having let their father deteriorate for so long as they focused on their careers, while Geoff appreciates all he could lose by refusing to change his life.
“The grandchildren were a big thing,” Geoff concedes. “In the past I didn’t really have a close relationship with them at all. The threat of never having that was a huge driving factor.”
At the end of the film we pose a question: who would you miss most when they’re gone?
The journey wasn’t always easy – various explosive arguments are captured at points where the pressure felt too much – but just nine months after he began the programme, Geoff completed the 100-mile ride through London.
Then, in February last year came the news they’d always wished for. The diabetes had been successfully ‘resolved’. Geoff was fixed.
“It was amazing. They told us that as long as he stays on this course, he’d have no need for the pills,” Anthony says.
Today Geoff stands at a lithe 13 stone – having lost seven – and says the project has brought the whole family together.
“Marilyn, my wife, has lost three stone coming out on the bike with me. My step-children and Ian and Anthony’s families have caught the bug too. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been and completely addicted.”
Now employed helping his sons’ film work, and a regular speaker at diabetes conferences around the world, Geoff’s life has been entirely transformed.
“Without a shadow of a doubt,” he says, “my boys saved my life. I wouldn’t be here with the family if it weren’t for what they did.”
Plans are now afoot for a follow-up to Fixing Dad, focusing this time on other diabetes sufferers across Britain.
“At the end of the film we pose a question: who would you miss most when they’re gone?” Anthony says. “Until you’re proven otherwise, diabetes is a condition that’s entirely fixable.”
How to Manage and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
Six tips from Dr David Cavan, the UK’s leading expert on diabetes self-management and author of Reverse Your Diabetes: The Step-by-Step Plan to Take Control of Type 2 Diabetes.
- Limit yourself to two standard alcoholic drinks a day. Alcohol is high in calories and can lead to weight gain and increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Moderate alcohol intake is associated with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Cider, sweet wines and some beers are best avoided as the can have high sugar or carbohydrate content.
- Drink water, coffee or tea instead of fruit juice and fizzy drinks. Sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk of type 2 diabetes including fruit juices and smoothies. Caffeine may be beneficial but only as unsweetened tea or coffee – not a latte or cappuccino.
- Eat at least three servings of green leafy vegetables every day. These contain vitamins, fibre and are very low in calories. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes are best eaten in moderation as they can have a similar effect as sugar in leading to a rapid rise in blood glucose. Eating more than three pieces of fruit a day does not appear to protect from type 2 diabetes.
- Snack on a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts or unsweetened yoghurt. They’re low in sugar, as opposed to biscuits, chocolate bars and cakes which are high in sugar, fat and calories.
- Choose poultry, fish or lean cuts of white meat. Red and processed meats are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Meals prepared with fresh, unprocessed meat are preferable to ready-made or ‘fast food’ meals.
- Buy whole-grain bread, rice and pasta. White bread and white rice are turned into glucose rapidly; excess consumption of white rice is associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes.