The following article is excerpted from my upcoming book, 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes, and is currently featured in the October/November issue of Diabetes Health magazine (www.diabeteshealth.com).
The Remarkable Story of African-American Trailblazer James W. Quander
If ever there were a diabetic trailblazer, the honor should go to James William Quander, the longest-living African-American with type 1 diabetes on record. Born in 1918 in Washington, D.C., he was diagnosed with diabetes in early 1924, shortly before the age of six.
At the time of his diagnosis, there were few specialists available to treat diabetes and even fewer with admitting privileges at Children’s Hospital, the local pediatric hospital. As a result, young James was usually the only juvenile patient at Freedman’s Hospital (now called Howard University Hospital), the local adult hospital founded in 1863 to care for freed slaves and their descendants. There his doctor, also African-American, could care for him under the segregation laws in place during those years.
According to the doctors at the time, young James was supposed to be dead by the age of ten. His parents, however, chose not to pass on that expectation to their son. Instead, they told him that he had a very serious illness that he would have to work hard to manage, and they did all they could to give him the same quality of life as his four siblings. Given the racial segregation of Washington, D.C., from the time of his diagnosis through the 1940s (and beyond), James repeatedly dealt with double discrimination. His race kept him from gaining higher-paying jobs, and his diabetes, viewed at the time as a potentially contagious disease, led many of his peers to shun him. He applied for a position with the FBI but was told that because of his skin color, he qualified only to work for the postal service. Despite his start at a lowly postal worker job, he went on to work for the federal government for 33 years as an economist, statistician, computer programmer, and manpower labor specialist.
In another trailblazing moment, James married his wife, Joherra Rohulamin Quander, despite the fact that her family came from East Asian/European roots. At the time, during the 1940s, society was almost completely segregated. Nevertheless, James announced, “I didn’t pick my family, but I plan to pick my wife.” She bore him three boys and one girl, none of whom has diabetes. (His ten grandchildren and two great-grandchildren are also diabetes-free.) They remained married until her death nearly sixty years later.
For the most part James chose to keep his diabetes a secret, not publicly coming out of the “diabetes closet” until he was in his fifties. By that time, during the 1970s, most people had come to realize that diabetes was not a communicable condition. In 1971, James was ordained as one of the first Permanent Deacons in the Roman Catholic Church. On a trip to Rome in 1975, he served as sole assistant to Pope Paul VI in celebrating a daily mass.
James lived by five simple words: faith, hope, love, perseverance, and discipline. For him, “faith” meant his own faith in God and in himself. As for “hope,” he always maintained the hope that diabetes would be cured in his lifetime. In his later years, when it was apparent that a cure was unlikely for him, he put his energy into managing his blood sugars and teaching others to do the same. “Love” meant the love given to and received from his family and friends, which sustained him when his disease was most troublesome. “Perseverance” helped him live life to the fullest in spite of having diabetes. Finally, “discipline” topped the list as the most important quality; he was undeniably disciplined in caring for his disease for over eight decades.
During his later years, James traced the history of the Quander family clear back to 1684. Originating in Ghana, a branch of his family had been slaves owned by George Washington (freed by Martha as decreed in the president’s will), while others had been freed shortly after their arrival in America. Late in James’ life, he and his oldest son, Judge Rohulamin Quander, set out to document his remarkable story. Together they wrote a book, published in 2006, called The Quander Quality: The True Story of a Black Trailblazing Diabetic (www.TheQuanderQuality.com). James insisted that after his death, his son donate half of the book’s proceeds to Howard University College of Medicine. His is a story that will inspire people for many years to come.