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(Many Paths)
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Diabetes Takes Deadly Toll On Apache Tribe
Health fair deploys dancers, testimonials to fight illness with information
by Michele Nelson - Payson (AZ) Roundup
credits: photos by Andy Towle
"Even these children are educators," said Cassandra Stouder, diabetes coordinator for the Tonto Apache Tribe.

Tashina Smith couldn't a agree more.

She is a young mother from the tribe who never took her diabetes seriously until her son Isaac came along.

"Once my son got here, everything changed," she said.

Tashina attended the Pathways Health Fair on Saturday, Feb. 23 with her extended family, most of whom suffer from diabetes.

"We don't have a small family," she said, "Each night we have seven over for dinner ... and most are diabetic."

Stouder held the health fair to educate tribal members and employees of the casino on how to recognize, understand the consequences and control diabetes.

"I hope it opens up their eyes — it's not something you can push aside," said Tashina. "It's day in and day out. It does not go away ... but we love our traditional foods, fry bread, spam, tortillas ..."

Tashina said she was married for over seven years when she discovered to her surprise she was pregnant. Her family was ecstatic, but she learned quickly the consequences of uncontrolled Type II diabetes on her pregnancy.

"I had to go to a high-risk pregnancy specialist in Phoenix," she said.

Despite seeing the specialist OBGYN that sent her to a nutritionist who worked specifically with diabetic pregnancies twice a week, Isaac was born nine weeks early. During the pregnancy, Tashina suffered through preeclampsia and an amniotic fluid infection.

"It was scary," she said.

Yet, she takes full responsibility.

"I did not take care of myself before I got pregnant," she said of her diet, weight and lack of exercise.

Dr. Alan Michels connected the dots for the attendees on the health impact of diabetes.

"It starts with sugars surrounding individual blood cells," he said.

The sugar surrounding the blood cell makes the blood thicker, which makes it collect in the tiny capillaries that serve nerves.

"When you cut yourself, you don't see the nerves because they are so tiny," said Michels. "These veins that serve the nerves are too tiny to see with your eyes."

The lack of blood flow creates a host of problems, including nerve deadening and an inability to heal from infection.

Tashina said that her grandmother's mother died from a simple cut to her leg because the infection got out of control due to her diabetes.

Michels said other complications of diabetes include blindness, high blood pressure and organ failure.

To back up Michels' message, Stouder invited nurses, health educators and a dentist to attend the fair. Attendees filled out a punch card as they walked around the room to get their blood pressure taken, learn about nutritional choices and hear about the consequences to teeth and dental health from diabetes.

However, Tashina said what really made the difference to her family was her son.

"We need to be there for him," she said of the family beginning to make healthy choices to control their diabetes.

Tashina worries about her sister who already suffers from diabetes, but finds it difficult to do what's necessary to remain healthy.

Tashina said what makes it so hard for her and her sister is that every bite of food a diabetic takes has to be thought out. Each day, diabetics must do exercise.

It gets overwhelming, but Isaac helps.

"He gets my sister up and running after him," said Tashina.

Isaac also helps her grandmother.

Tashina's grandmother, who now uses a walker and suffers problems with her feet and nerves, adores her grandson, who inspires her to take better care of herself.

To cap off the health fair, Stouder had world champion hoop dancer Brian Hammill and his family perform. The performers got the audience up and participating — even one of the tribal police officers.

Hammill said the hoop dance saved him from drinking a six-pack of alcohol and smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

"It changed my life. Getting involved with something like this can change yours," he said.

Isaac watched everything with eyes wide. He got so into the dancing that he wandered onto the center of the dance floor. Tashina's sister had to quickly leap out to scoop him up and bring him to safety.

Everyone laughed, even the dancers.

After Isaac cleared the floor, Hammill's two children, ages 7 and 9, came out to set-up the hoops to do the dance. Hammill called this the primary version of the hoop dance, intended to inspire the children attending the health fair to dance.

"We have a different attitude about our children — they are today's learners, but also tomorrow's teachers," he said.

As Hammill's children danced, so did Isaac.

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