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Getting to Know… Andy Mandell

For years, Andy Mandell had been unable to feel his legs because of a diabetic condition called peripheral neuropathy. Recently feeling has begun to return, a pins and needles sensation, he said. And all Mandell had to do to bring back that feeling was walk 8,000 miles. Mandell began his walk from Florida four years ago. Since then he has worked his way clockwise through every perimeter state in the U.S. His arrival in D.C. last week marked mile 8000 of his trip. He walked down the Mount Vernon Trail on Thursday, Dec. 14.

Mandell, who lives in Florida but has an accent that betrays his Boston roots, is circumnavigating the country to promote awareness of Diabetes warning signs and risk factors. He was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 1985 when he was 40. He had been active all his life and was not overweight. He nearly died a few years later, when his oral medications weren’t effective, but recovered with a mix of insulin and strict medical oversight. He has had surgery on both eyes so he won’t go blind. He is now working with the Defeat Diabetes Foundation to spread his message to the people he meets on his walk.

Because he prioritizes spreading his message over covering distance, Mandell measures his walks in hours, not miles. He tries to walk five to six hours a day and usually talks to 25-50 people. He estimates he’s met 45,000 people, because he’s taken that many brochures from his inventory. At night he sleeps in an RV driven by his two support people: Russ and Shirley Barriger.

What do you think of the Mount Vernon Trail?

“I’ve been telling people this is in the top five of the best walks I’ve had in the entire trip. And then they ask me, ‘What are the other four?’ and they don’t come to mind.”

Why are you walking?

“I’m delivering the message of prevention: showing people how to profile if they are at risk, identify early if they have it and prevent it if they don’t … I’m also showing people we’re not helpless, we’re not hopeless … I’m a pretty good walking example of balance in your life … being able to incorporate the disease into your lifestyle so you can live a long and happy life.”

Where have you walked?

“On Jan. 5, 2002, I headed out: west along the southern tier, reached San Diego and hopped in the Pacific Ocean. Then I worked up the coast to Seattle, the Space Needle. I took a right turn, crossed the Cascades, went over the Rockies, continued east. I had to break three times for winter though. I came back to Montana in April and it was still snowing in July. Then walked along the northern tier to Portland, Maine and hit the Atlantic there on July 7. Now I’m heading down the east coast. Virginia is the thirtieth state. I don’t count the state until I’ve walked through it though.”

What do you tell the people you meet?

“Diabetes is an epidemic out of control in this country … The latest numbers are that there are 21 million diabetics [in the United States]. Up to one-third don’t know they have it. The future is bleak. Up to 54 million people are pre-diabetic. These are people who will develop the disease if they don’t take steps immediately, I mean immediately, to ward it off.

“The sad part, or the good news, I’m not sure how to phrase it. Let’s call it the good news: Even though the conventional wisdom has failed us … Type 2 diabetes is up to 90 percent preventable. So what’s wrong with that picture?

Where should the emphasis be? We can prevent this from 90 percent of the cases. We can profile who’s at risk of developing it. And we can take steps to prevent them from getting it in the first place.”

You must be quite healthy.

"In order for me to do what I’m doing I need the three basic components for dealing with diabetes: proper medical oversight — that means an endocrinologist; it’s a metabolic disorder, so proper nutrition is vital; and exercise. [Before being diagnosed] I always did two of the three. But I didn’t have that medical oversight, so I was headed for disaster, and disaster came.”

What are some of the perils you’ve encountered?

“I have been attacked numerous times by packs of wild dogs, rattlesnakes, other snakes, scorpions, spiders, deer. I came face to face with a badger one time.”

Is that all?

Oh yeah, buffalo.”

“Plus being a buffer for traffic. I’ve been nicked by cars a couple times, been close a zillion times more.”