Dieticians work to bring personalized diabetes consultation to Marshall

By Joe Holloway, Marshall News Messenger

Dieticians Mary Lynn Vassar and Donna Sherman have worked in plenty of hospitals.

In fact, they’re worked in many of the same ones since they first met about 15 years ago in Shreveport.

“I was at Willis-Knighton and she was at Schumpert and, in spite of that, we were friends,” joked Ms. Vassar.

But it was their common passions for teaching diabetes education that lead the two to strike out on their own and start a small business, “Get Diabetes Education,” dedicated to the pursuit.

Ms. Vassar said she and Ms. Sherman wanted to start the business as a one-on-one alternative to group classes available in hospitals.

“We just feel like trying to educate people in a group doesn’t work as well,” said Ms. Vassar. “If you’re on insulin and this other person is on oral medications, those are two entirely different animals. If they’re type-1, they don’t really want to hear about ‘I’m gaining weight because I’m taking all these meds.’ There’re totally different problems for type-1 and type-2. That’s why we kind of wanted to start this.

“I’d worked in classes for years and you could sense the frustration of some of the patients that weren’t getting what they wanted.”

Ms. Vassar has a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition from Texas Woman’s University in Denton and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition from Louisiana Tech University. Ms. Sherman has a Bachelor of Science degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Northeast Louisiana University as well as a Master of Science degree in Institution Management from Louisiana Tech University.

Both are certified dieticians, which, according to Ms. Vassar, requires “another 2,000 hours beyond the masters level of diabetes specific education.”

Ms. Vassar actually runs the Wisteria Garden Bed and Breakfast as well.

Even with all that education and experience, however, there are still some aspects of starting a small business they said they found difficult.

“It’s totally different,” said Ms. Sherman. “I’ve always worked in hospitals and other places and never worked in a business like this. It’s been different for me but I’ve enjoyed it very much.”

Ms. Vassar noted some of the specific differences between working for a hospital and running their own business, namely how they get paid.

“When we work in the hospital or as a contract person, we get a check every month,” she said. “Here we only get paid for the patients we see and it’s only after expenses.”

She also said it can be difficult to balance actually seeing patients with marketing the business with the doctors who make the diagnoses and make the referrals.

“We have to go out and call physicians, remind them we’re here,” she said. “And we’re still not seeing the number of children we should be seeing. There’s a huge population of obese children and the literature shows that, if they work with a dietician, they do lose weight and do better.

“But if we’re here seeing patients then we’re not out marketing and vice versa.”

Thankfully, Ms. Vassar said she and her business partner have a handy advisor in Virgil Conner, a business advisor at the Kilgore College Small Business Development Center in Marshall.

“When we started our business, Virgil kind of did the preplanning with us and has just been a business consultant basically,” she said. “He’s given us some good ideas for marketing and is just there to give us advice whenever anything comes up.”

Ms. Vassar said she met Conner when she took an 8-week Kilgore College class called “How to Start and Operate a Business in East Texas,” a class she said she’d recommend to anyone looking to start their own small business.

“I just kind of wanted to get some marketing ideas and update my knowledge and all,” she said. “I just wanted some new ideas and I really enjoyed the class. It was good.”

Conner said there is another class coming up on Tuesday nights from Feb. 26 through April 23 and that anyone interested in signing up should call the Small Business Development Center at (903) 757-5857.

“It’s been going on for the past 20 years,” he said of the $119 class. “We get people who are looking to go into business. We get people who have been in business. They have an opportunity to get caught up on changes that are taking place in finance, insurance, tax laws and things like that. It’s something that’s very beneficial.”

Ms. Sherman said she hadn’t taken the class, but it’s something that she’d like to do.

“This is all brand new to me,” she said. “I’m just dipping my toe in the water so I would like to take it.”

In the meantime, both she and Ms. Vassar seem to be happy with where their own business is.

“We opened in Nov. 2011 so we’ve been open for over a year now,” she said. “We’re just right at break even, but hopefully we’ll continue to grow from there.”

Currently housed in the Small Business Development Center’s “business incubator” office at 101 S. Bolivar, Ms. Vassar added that she’s glad she decided to open up shop in Marshall.

“I’m glad we did it in Marshall because there’s such a need here,” she said. “We feel like we have a great space. We really feel safe here.”

Ms. Sherman said Get Diabetes Education would work with just about anybody as far as scheduling, even on weekends, and payment plans.

“We try to work with people because we really just want to help people,” she said, adding that one of the main goals was to simply help people make healthier choices. “Some of our patients want a magic pill or something like that but we’re not like that. You’re not on or off a diet. We want people to enjoy their food. We want to encourage people to make healthier choices most of the time, but we’re not the food police. If they want a piece of birthday cake or a cookie, OK have it, but in moderation. Don’t feel guilty about it.”

And, in the end, they both like working together.

“We knew that we could work together,” said Ms. Vassar. “If you’re ill, you don’t want a diabetes educator that’s not up. You want someone that’s going to be fun. I didn’t want to be in business with someone I was going to have to pump up every day. I’ve been in that work environment before and it’s no fun.”

Ms. Sherman was complimentary as well.

“Mary Lynn is a go-getter,” she said. “She’s very passionate about helping people. She goes over and above.

“We’ve known each other for years and I think we work well together.”