Actress S. Epatha Merkerson on living with Type 2 diabetes, acting on ‘Law & Order’

You may know S. Epatha Merkerson from her role as Nanny in the television movie “Lackawanna Blues,” her Tony-nominated performance in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” or, most likely, for her portrayal of Lt. Anita Van Buren on the famously long-running New York police procedural, “Law & Order.”

Now, the actress is using her fame to promote a health cause: Type 2 diabetes awareness.

Merkerson, 63, is one of 29.1 million Americans living with diabetes. She was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, in 2003. At least one in three people will develop the disease in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Merkerson recently teamed up with Merck, the American Diabetes Association and iHeart Media to tout the importance of Type 2 diabetes patients establishing and reaching A1C (average blood glucose level) goals with their doctor.

amNewYork spoke with Merkerson, who splits her time between Harlem and Chicago, about how she manages her disease, as well as her time on “Law & Order.”


You were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2003. How have you changed your life to manage your disease?

It’s a complete lifestyle change, seeing the doctor every three to four months to meet my A1C goals. I stay away from fast foods and don’t skip [healthy] meals. I’ve never been a breakfast person, but now I make sure I have something in the morning [to keep blood sugar levels in check]. And I test my blood twice a day. I like the word “proactive.” Diabetes is a manageable disease. We want people to go to AmericasDiabetesChallenge.com where they can get information and share their stories. I quit smoking Feb. 4, 1995, and gained 40 pounds, which I think might have contributed to the onset. I’ve lost a lot of that 40 pounds by finding the time to exercise, even though my schedule is never the same.


You had a family history of diabetes, yet you weren’t diagnosed until 2003 at a health fair.

My father died from Type 2 diabetes, my grandma lost her sight and I had relatives with amputations. Yet, there was no dialogue in my family about Type 2 diabetes! Why not? I have a brother suffering with Type 2 diabetes now. We have conversations all the time. His health has improved because we’re having that conversation. Thirteen percent of African Americans have been diagnosed with diabetes. Middle-aged people, African Americans, females — these are just some of the communities dealing with its consequences.


Many Americans are not being treated because they can’t afford to see physicians or fill their prescriptions. What can you tell us about how to handle the high costs of meds and care?

Here’s what is difficult: I’m an actor who has Type 2 diabetes and it’s important for me to discuss my personal experience. I’m not equipped to talk about those kinds of things. What I’m here for is so people aren’t discouraged. I keep myself away from things outside my expertise.



Is it true that by being in 17 of “Law & Order’s” 20 seasons, you played the longest-running African American character in prime time?

I was! Now it’s Ice-T. He’s going to have 18 seasons on “Special Victims Unit.”

I read you taught acting at City College. Do you still?

I never taught! I have no idea where that came from. Half the stuff on Wiki about me isn’t even true. Somewhere it says I have one brother: I’m one of five siblings and they’re all very much alive. Hello! You cannot trust everything you read on the web.


Have you attempted to correct the inaccuracies about you floating around in cyberspace?

No. It’s the web! If it’s not one thing, it’s 10 other things.


What did you learn about NYC and our criminal justice system from working on “Law & Order” for so many years?

The city is really resilient. We started when the city had lots of financial troubles and wasn’t as safe. . . . And I have an amazing regard and respect for the men and women in law enforcement in NYC. They’re struggling between what is right and wrong as well.

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