Hyvelle Ferguson-Davis received a diagnosis of gestational diabetes at age 33, when she was pregnant with her son. That diagnosis changed to type 2 diabetes when the condition persisted after she gave birth.

She looks back now and suspects that she had been living with type 2 diabetes for some time.

“Now that I know the signs and symptoms, I look back and think I probably had diabetes for years before I got pregnant. I was tired, I was lethargic, I was thirsty all the time,” she told Healthline. “My mom also has diabetes, and my father died of [diabetes] complications, so it runs in our family, but it was never something we talked about.”

Hyvelle made changes to her diet and took insulin and oral medication to manage the diabetes while pregnant.

But after she gave birth, she shifted back to her old eating habits. She rarely checked her blood glucose levels. And for a while, she stopped taking her diabetes medication.

“There was a point where I couldn’t afford the medication,” she recalled. “I lost my job during pregnancy because I was always out sick, so I went without insurance for months until I found new employment.

“There were tough choices to make because I didn’t have the money or insurance to really deal with it. And I was going to school, I was a mother, I was there for everyone else but not really addressing my own needs.”

It wasn’t until Hyvelle developed serious cardiovascular complications that she found the motivation, support, and tools that she needed to make lasting changes.

When Hyvelle was 45 years old, she was at work one day and began to have trouble reading the numbers and words in front of her. She went home to rest until her daughter came home from school.

“I was in the kitchen multitasking with my daughter, and she was like, ‘Mom, you’re not making sense.’ She said I was talking ‘garbage.’ So she called my sister, who told her to call the emergency department,” Hyvelle recalled.

Hyvelle was reluctant to go to the hospital because she had so much on her to-do list. She had to make dinner, get her son to soccer practice, and take a test for school later that night.

By the time her husband got home, her leg had gone limp.

They went to the hospital, where she learned that she’d had a stroke. She received medication and a referral to a stroke rehab center, where she spent weeks learning how to talk, walk, and complete routine tasks again.

That experience was only the beginning of the challenges she would face.

“About a month and a half after I came home from rehab, I was in bed one night feeling depressed and useless. Then I felt some sharp pain. It was like lightning bolts, one, two, three,” Hyvelle said.

She returned to the emergency department and learned she’d had a heart attack, which required a quadruple bypass and multiple stents to treat.

“I came home and felt like I was going to die. My only dream was to wake up to see the sunrise. When I woke up and saw the sun, I was like, ‘Yes, I was given another day.’ I just held onto those days,” she said.

Hyvelle started to go outside each morning to watch the sunrise. She began taking short walks.

And as the months went by, she made other changes as well.

Hyvelle began to research cardiovascular disease and learned about its link with diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that people with diabetes are twice as likely as average to have a stroke or heart disease. Both diabetes and heart disease require medical support and lifestyle changes to manage.

Hyvelle began to understand the importance of monitoring her glucose levels. Keeping blood glucose within the target range reduces the risk of diabetes complications. And as a self-described “numbers person,” her glucose readings gave her something manageable to work with.

“I finally knew what the A1C test was. It was an indicator of 3 months of how my body was doing. The goal was to bring those numbers down so my body could be aligned with how I wanted to live. That’s what I focused on,” she said.

Hyvelle hasn’t been able to afford a continuous glucose monitor, which continually monitors blood glucose levels. So, she uses a manual glucose monitor instead. It requires her to prick her skin with a lancet multiple times a day to test her blood glucose levels. It’s not easy, but she finds it less challenging than she used to.

“When I was [first] diagnosed, I was not someone who checked my numbers a lot because it really hurt. That was a major stumbling block,” she explained. “But now it’s evolved to be so much better than it used to be.

“I used to only check my numbers when I felt bad, but now it’s every morning because I have this tool that helps me. It says, ‘Hey, reminder! Reminder!’ The lancet is smaller, and the monitor keeps track of my numbers so I can see the average, which is tremendous. I see it as a numbers game.”

Hyvelle started to learn more about nutrition and the dietary changes she could make to manage her blood glucose and support her heart health. She made one small change in her habits after another, celebrating each one as a victory. As she gained momentum, she gained confidence.

And her family began to make healthy lifestyle changes along with her.

I realized it wasn’t just medication that I’d need but a whole lifestyle change. Not only for myself but for my whole family. Like, ‘If you want me to live, everybody’s gotta get on board.’”

Her A1C levels have now fallen from 12% to about 6%.

Hyvelle’s glucose monitor isn’t the only technology that she uses to manage diabetes and heart disease. She’s found several smartphone apps helpful for supporting lifestyle changes.

The American Diabetes Association and National Committee for Quality Assurance report that a variety of apps and other digital tools have been developed to support diabetes management. But there are currently no universal quality control measures or standards for evaluating those tools. That can make it difficult for people with diabetes to find the right app for them.

Hyvelle uses a diet-tracking app to track her calorie, carbohydrate, protein, and sodium intake.

She also uses a cardiac rehab app to track heart health metrics and complete guided cardiac rehab exercises at home.

“I love these apps because they help keep me accountable every day,” she explained.

Getting support from healthcare professionals, family members, and other community members is also important.

Hyvelle has found a doctor that she feels comfortable with. They’ve worked together to find medications that work well for her. And she’s built her health knowledge so that she can have more informed conversations with him about her symptoms and treatment goals.

“I asked, ‘Can I record this appointment on my phone?’ Because I couldn’t write as fast as my doctor talked, I didn’t understand what he was saying, and I wanted to learn more,” she said.

“I would record each session, and then I would go and research certain words that he used. Now I know about things like ejection fraction, comorbidities, and hypertension — words that you don’t use in everyday life but that I need to understand to converse and know what my doctor is saying.”

Hyvelle sought out credible sources of health information online and also reached out through social media to people living with diabetes and heart disease.

She eventually founded Heart Sistas, a nonprofit organization that provides heart health education and support for Black women and Women of Color. Members from across the world connect virtually and in person to support and motivate each other.

“Sometimes you have questions that doctors can’t really answer, but if you meet somebody that’s gone through something similar? Oh my gosh! You find commonality. And then you find hope — because if they’re living with this, then you can live with this, too,” she said.

Hyvelle still experiences challenges managing diabetes and heart disease, but she celebrates the changes she’s made and the tools she’s found to support her health and build community.

“I tell everybody, take a breath. Life is difficult, the journey is hard, and you have to learn how to navigate it,” she said. “If you’re living with diabetes, grab on and look at your numbers. Focus on something that you can manage. Gain momentum by taking one step at a time.”

Hyvelle Ferguson-Davis is the founder of Heart Sistas, a nonprofit organization that provides heart health education and support to Black women and Women of Color. She’s also a patient ambassador for Know Diabetes by Heart, a joint initiative of the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. She received a diagnosis of diabetes at age 33 and had a stroke and heart attack at age 45. These experiences launched her on a journey of survival, through which she has learned more about her health, made changes to support it, and connected with others facing similar challenges.