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Lessons in faith
Diabetics who use spirituality to cope have better health

By Crystal Baity

(This feature originally appeared in the 2009 issue of Alliance, the annual alumni magazine for the College of Allied Health Sciences. It has been updated for this issue of Pieces of Eight

As someone who has lived with diabetes most of her life, faith has been Dr. Susie Harris’ foundation.

Diabetes and faith became research for her doctoral thesis in rehabilitation studies, which she successfully defended in June 2008. Harris studied whether people with diabetes in eastern North Carolina who use spirituality as a coping mechanism have better health outcomes.

They do, based on her research, which was published this summer in an article in the Journal of Complementary and Integrative Medicine with co-authors Dr. David Musick, associate dean for medical education in the Brody School of Medicine, and Dr. Daniel Wong, formerly at ECU and now at Mississippi State University. Harris also has published a book, “The Impact of Spirituality on Persons with Diabetes.”  

Harris reads the Bible daily, teaches Sunday school, sings in the choir, and is one of the founding members of Liberty Free Will Baptist Church in Greenville. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)
The article examined the theoretical literature on the influence of spirituality on general health and relevance to patient care. It suggests that the recognition of spirituality as the basis of meaning in life can lead to fruitful insights for the care and support of many patients who suffer from a variety of health conditions.

Diabetes is a chronic disease in which the body does not produce or properly use insulin, a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches and other food to energy, according to the American Diabetes Association. Controlling diabetes requires rigorous daily management and medication, diet and exercise to keep blood sugar levels in check. The disease can lead to serious complications like blindness, kidney damage, amputation and cardiovascular disease, even premature death, but prevention is possible with proper self-care.

“There are several studies that show spirituality does have a positive impact on health conditions in general. I wanted to look at it specifically to diabetes and eastern North Carolina,” said Harris, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Services and Information Management.  

For her dissertation research, she mailed a 43-question survey to 2,615 people with diabetes in eastern North Carolina. Individuals with a fasting blood glucose level of 126 or more were classified as diabetic. Harris looked at the A1c levels, a measurement of glucose in hemoglobin in a three-to-four month timeframe, over a 10-year period. The tests monitor whether treatment is working or if it needs to change. To obtain a larger sample size, people with diabetes who had at least three A1c level reports over a 12-month period also were used. Average A1c levels along with slopes of the data were analyzed. The study is a significant addition to the literature because it used a biological measure, the mean A1c level, as a criterion for health status. Most studies that use A1c levels tend to rely on a single measurement at one point in time, Harris said.

For the study, spirituality was defined as believing in God or a higher being. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents said they used spirituality as a coping mechanism for their diabetes more than 90 percent of the time. Twenty-eight percent used it 50 percent to 80 percent of the time, and 28 percent used it less than 40 percent of the time. Five percent didn’t answer.

Harris’ research showed that support systems also were important. A total of 28 percent said their support system included family, church and a health care program, while 23 percent used only family support, and 22 percent had family and church support. Another 16 percent said they used a combination of family and a health care program, while 11 percent relied on some other combination.

“I do not remember not being a diabetic,” said Harris, who has had Type 1 or insulin-dependent diabetes since she was 9.  

For 18 years, she has been on an insulin pump, which provides tight control over blood sugar with fewer fluctuations. Before, she took two to three insulin shots daily to manage her diabetes.

“I’m so thankful my diabetes is like it is, and I know my faith plays a part,” Harris said. “It makes me an optimistic person – always with hope. I think of my diabetes as a challenge not as an obstacle.”
A new exhibit at Laupus Library features paintings related to faith and illness. Visit for details. (Contributed photo)

If not for faith, Harris said she probably wouldn’t have survived a severe brain injury at age 11 when a van hit her while riding her bike. She was thrown 20 feet in the air and landed on the pavement. She lay in a coma with intermittent seizures for seven days at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, where a neurosurgeon told her parents if she survived, she would likely be in a permanent vegetative state. Their church, Grace Baptist in Kinston, and more than 50 churches around the state “stopped their services and prayed for me,” Harris said.

Defying prognosis, she learned to walk and talk again during a lengthy rehabilitation. One year after the accident, her physician called her a miracle. Fully recovered, she eventually earned an academic college scholarship and, years later, became the office manager for the neurological practice of the doctor who treated her as a child.

“Prayer changes things,” she said.

Wong, former director of doctoral studies in ECU’s Department of Rehabilitation Studies, initially doubted Harris’ ability to complete the program because of the time requirements needed for a full-time faculty member who also holds a master’s degree in a different field.

“She not only completed her study on schedule, but was also the first graduate from our doctoral program,” said Wong, adding the research has “tremendous potential to contribute greatly to the body of knowledge in the study of spirituality, health care and health conditions.”

Harris hopes her research will help educate other people with diabetes on the role of proper care.

“If you’re able to take control of it, you will save yourself numerous complications,” she said.

(The Journal article can be viewed online at


This story appeared originally in the Aug. 27, 2010 issue of Pieces of Eight. An archived version of that issue is available at