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Diabetes is Never Just You

Len, Maria & Hispanic woman

Huron Provider Explains His Passion During Diabetes Awareness Month

Len Wonnenberg, PA-C, has been around diabetes his entire life. Now, he has immersed his life in helping treat and prevent diabetes in South Dakota.

“Diabetes is never just you. It’s a mother or father or your child,” said Wonnenberg, a Horizon Health Care provider in Huron. “Every patient has a story. And our job here is not to judge a person, but treat them.”

November is National Diabetes Month, where communities team up to bring attention to diabetes. It’s something Wonnenberg has done his whole career.

An avid wrestler back in high school, Wonnenberg always had an interest in nutrition. He paid careful attention to how diet influenced his performance. Diet is just one of the elements he stresses today with his patients.

Carb counting, moderate exercise, regular exams, support programs and mental health counseling are all emphasized by Wonnenberg and Horizon Health Care. Together, they work to help prevent diabetes and improve the health of those considered pre-diabetic or diabetic.

“My passion for diabetes really started out as a necessity. As a community health center, we see a very diverse group of people with complex physical and social problems. One of the most recurring themes is diabetes, especially among low income and vulnerable people who have a difficult time taking care of themselves.”

Wonnenberg adds that the clinic is uniquely suited to serve Huron’s diverse population. Horizon employs five full-time providers and six interpreters. They use simple learning tools and pictures for patients who speak very little English. They also connect patients to support groups, social workers, mental health services and telemedicine.

“If we can prevent someone from becoming diabetic, it not only improves their lives, it reduces the economic burden for everyone.” Wonnenberg cites a 2017 study that estimates the cost of being diabetic is approximately $13,000 a year.

The physical toll of diabetes, when combined with other chronic health problems, can be even worse. Wonnenberg notes that patients who manage their diabetes and do the things they should have generally fared better when getting COVID.

During COVID, the clinic has adjusted to see their diabetic and hypertension patients in the morning hours and their remaining patients in the afternoon. The clinics do an extensive cleaning when they close so their higher risk patients are in the safest environment possible the following day. Every morning, staff are temperature checked and screened.

“It’s really important to keep your regular exams right now, especially if you have diabetes or other chronic problems,” says Wonnenberg. “You can feel safe coming in to our clinic and know we’ve taken every extra precaution.”

Wonnenberg’s efforts to treat and prevent diabetes extend well outside the clinic. He is Vice President of the South Dakota Diabetes Coalition, a collaborative group of healthcare professionals, advocacy groups, government agencies, tribal health representatives and persons with diabetes. Their mission is to improve the lives of all South Dakotans at risk for, or affected by diabetes.

He works at the local level too. Wonnenberg, along with several other members of the Huron Medical community, helped form James Valley Diabetes Group, organized Diabetes Day educational fairs and speaks regularly to community and civic groups.

“It’s wonderful, I love it. I really hope other communities do the same things we have,” says Wonnenberg. “We need more passionate people working on diabetes.”

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