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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 1, 2002 - Issue 62


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Diabetes Teaches Us Important Life Lessons

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Columnist Grand Forks Herald
credits: art Three Generations of Weavers by Virginia Stroud

Three Generations of Weavers by Virginia StroudDiabetes on reservations is so common that if you lived there, you would be more likely to become diabetic than you would be to catch the flu during flu season. Native Americans who live in North Dakota will develop Type II diabetes at a rate four to five times greater than the rest of the U.S. population, some of the websites about diabetes tell me.

So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that most of the people that I know have diabetes. Unfortunately, the incidence is changing from older people to teen-agers and even some young children. One of my aunts has had diabetes since she was 48. She will turn 79 in August.

I returned home to visit her this weekend. It is graduation day for one of my nephews, who graduated from Parshall (N.D.) High School.

After spending the day in Spirit Lake at an initipi (sweat lodge), I drove to White Shield, N.D., arriving there Saturday evening. My two aunts and one of my sisters were sitting in the living room visiting when I got there.

My aunt was laughing and leading the conversation. So it was hard for me to believe that she was so ill last year. She had several episodes in which she was hospitalized; and while at home, she was subdued and quiet most of the time. Sometimes it was difficult to carry on a conversation with her.

Then she was put in a nursing home. She didn't complain, but neither did she get any better. The family did their best to make her nursing home room “homey,” and there were people in the home that she knew and could visit. I went to visit her one evening, and as I walked down the hall to her room, a woman was screaming and crying loudly. It was a heart-wrenching sound. My aunt said the woman did that all the time. She has Alzheimer's disease, my aunt said.

The family realized she was unhappy in that nursing home, so they brought her home. My sister, Gloria, who is retired, moved in with her.

My sister is strict with her. She makes sure that she gets her medication on time, cooks what is on her diabetic diet and, most importantly, keeps her active. They are rarely home during the week. Last week, they went to Minneapolis to visit relatives. They jump in the car and drive to Garrison, a town about 25 miles from where she lives, if the sky is clear and they have a gassed-up car ready to go.

Well, when I am there on weekends, I try to assist by helping take her blood sugar level, giving her the medications and sometimes giving her the insulin shots.

I am a little nervous about giving her the shot, but she never is afraid when I come at her with a nervous laugh, and a hand that is a little shaky.

On Sunday, while my sister was cooking, I was charged with taking her sugar, which my aunt needs to have done four times a day. (Remember, I had been in sweat the day before, so my eyes were a little cloudy.)

I took her sugar and yelled at my sister. “It's 581” (high even for her). She stopped with fork in mid-air, and turn toward me to say, “It's what?”

I looked at the machine again, and this time I squinted. To my chagrin, I realized I had had it upside down. Her reading was 182, which for my aunt is really good.

It has been sad and difficult at home this year. Several of our elders have passed on. Diabetes can cause heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, infections, blindness and amputations. It is a debilitating disease that seems to slowly reach in to claim organ after organ. Diabetes-related diaseses claimed too many this year.

Historically, diabetes wasn't one of the major diseases of our people. Hard work, war and accidents claimed more lives routinely. Oh, we had bouts with smallpox, measles, tuberculosis and other diseases like that. But now, most diseases result from prolonged diabetes - a result of our new lifestyles.

As my aunt sat there with the rest of the elders, seated against the wall of the garage where the graduation party was held, I thought that she is living proof that a changed diet and more exercise can prolong your life. I don't have diabetes . . . yet. But I am at risk. So I made a vow that evening, as I made that 4 l/2 hour drive on U.S. Highway 2 east to Grand Forks, that she would be my model and example. Good diet and more exercise for me, I said.

Yellow Bird writes columns. Reach her at 780-1228, (800) 477-6572 ext. 228 or

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