Sylvia Faircloth

Family History of Diabetes Shapes Personal Wellness Journey

By Grayson Schultz

Even as a small child, Sylvia Ann Faircloth knew that diabetes was serious enough to be scary. Not only did her mother have type 2 diabetes, but many of Sylvia’s relatives on her mother’s side did, too. She witnessed firsthand how the disease can lead to more negative health issues, including amputations.

Even so, she wasn’t prepared for what happened to her mom. Sylvia’s mother struggled with taking care of herself, and when she was 35, her blood sugar spiked to more than 10 times the healthy level. She went into a diabetic coma and never recovered.

“I would be telling a lie if I said that didn’t affect me,” Sylvia shares, recalling visiting her mother in the hospital as a young teenager, unprepared to see her hooked to life-support machines. “That visual of her never left my mind.”

When Sylvia was pregnant with her first child, she was diagnosed with gestational diabetes—a diagnosis that sent her mind spinning. Although her provider told her that gestational diabetes often clears up post-pregnancy, the diagnosis was a wake-up call that changed how Sylvia approached every aspect of her life. “I kicked into gear to be as healthy as I could,” she explains.

“In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Whatever you can do to not be diabetic, do it.’”

Seeing family members struggling with the challenges and consequences of diabetes reaffirmed her choices to focus on her health. “I saw their lifestyle, and I made the choice to be different,” she says. This affected how she interacted with some family members, and still does to this day. While they worry she’s not enjoying life enough, she worries about their health.
Sylvia often experiences pain in her feet due to her DPN.


Despite the changes she made and the fact that her gestational diabetes went away after she had her child, Sylvia was later diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2000. Her primary care doctor congratulated her for delaying the diagnosis through her lifestyle changes.

Learning that she had the same disease that had contributed to her mother’s death was scary, Sylvia says: “Ever since I was 14, I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to prevent it.”

Looking back, she worries her mother didn’t have enough patient education or support—including about how her drinking and mental health issues would interact with her diabetes, and the diet and lifestyle changes she should make to help manage the condition.

So Sylvia learned as much as she could about how to manage her blood sugar, later switching to a vegetarian diet and cutting out sugar.

But it only took a few years before a complication of diabetes changed her life entirely.

In 2006, Sylvia could not put any weight on her left foot one day and found that she had been impaled with a small nail. Since her diabetes diagnosis, she had begun developing tingling and pain in her feet and legs, and had not realized that she had diabetic peripheral neuropathy (DPN)—nerve damage caused by high blood sugar. DPN can cause both pain and numbness, increasing the likelihood of unrecognized injuries and resultant amputations.

Healing from the foot injury required an intense surgery, with a cast, a boot, and long-term antibiotics. Even today, Sylvia’s DPN is worse in her left foot.

Now, Sylvia, 65, pays extra attention to anything that feels out of place. She recommends that others remain aware, too, noting that complications from diabetes can require the amputation of limbs. “You know your body,” she says. “If something doesn’t feel right, take notice of it and act on it.”

She also recommends that people with diabetes get tested for nerve damage regularly. “Don’t let it linger on thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve just got numbness,’” she warns. “It is serious.”


Today, Sylvia’s DPN mostly affects her feet, legs, and hands. Sometimes it’s a burning, sharp, stabbing, or throbbing pain. Other times, the pain has a pins-and-needles feel, or causes her foot to involuntarily twitch. But however the pain feels from day to day, her DPN symptoms are constant.

She now takes extra care with her feet. She massages them, uses creams and lotions—including one with menthol that provides some pain relief—and always wears shoes around the house. She sees a podiatrist each month for toenail care and to check for additional diabetic ulcers.

Her diabetes affects her vision, causing periodic blurry vision, and she often struggles with sleeping. She continues to monitor her diet and weight, and takes medication to help keep her blood sugar low. She avoids sweet foods, as they quickly increase her neuropathic pain, and takes nerve pain medication to help treat the pain.

Sylvia finds joy in spending time with her family. While her husband recently passed away from carcinoma, she has three children she adores, as well as nine grandchildren. She does worry about their health, as two of her children have developed type 2 diabetes. “But they have to want to do what they need to do [to be healthy],” she says.

She stays in touch with her two sisters, the older of whom also has type 2 diabetes. Helping to hold each other accountable and experiencing shared community really helps.


Sadly, Sylvia’s closest aunt died in 2019—from complications of diabetes, like Sylvia’s mother. Her aunt used a wheelchair toward the end of her life due to severe DPN pain. “It was heartbreaking to hear her say she’d give anything to be able to walk again,” Sylvia shares.

Her aunt’s death brought back thoughts of Sylvia’s mom. “When you see that vision [of a traumatic death related to diabetes] as a child,” she shares, “it’s going to leave an imprint on your mind.”

One of the ways she carries her mother’s memory with her is through helping folks dealing with mental illness. She sees how chronic illness and pain can exacerbate mental health issues, and how mental illness can make it harder to manage physical conditions.

“My mother had schizophrenia,” shares Sylvia, who lives in Leesburg, Virginia, and volunteers for Mental Health America. “That’s why I go down to Richmond and help advocate for people who can’t do it for themselves.”

Sylvia is also passionate about contributing to the cause through her writing. She writes for Health Union and Arthritis Today, where she also edits a health and wellness column. But her neuropathic pain can make this difficult, especially when it flares up in her hands. She often has to stop for the day and return to the task later. It’s not only about the pain in her hands: the pain pulls her attention away, exacerbating her brain fog and short-term memory issues.

She recently had to step back from the prayer line ministry she founded, as her fatigue has gotten much worse. She says she received some pushback about stepping back: “People get used to you in the ways that they think they know you, and when you change, people don’t know what to do with that.”

But, she adds, “I know what I can do and what I can’t. You have to love yourself to not do the things that will make your disease worse.”

By speaking up and advocating for herself, learning as much as she can about her diabetes, and making lifestyle changes to protect herself as much as possible, Sylvia feels like she takes care of her mom just a little bit today by taking care of herself:

“Wherever she may be, she would be proud of me for doing those things.”