Chisasibi’s Sarah Louttit, 52, has had diabetes since 1991. At least, that’s when she was diagnosed during a stay at a treatment centre in the Gaspe town of Maria. Until then, she never thought about the disease and admitted that she knew very little.
“I was in denial at first,” the grandmother of nine children told the Nation. “No, it can’t be, it’s not happening to me. I didn’t know what diabetes was. It’s frightening to have any kind of disease when you don’t know what it is.”
Luckily, the treatment centre was equipped to house diabetics. They gave her insulin and discovered that her sugar level was at an astounding 13.5. Normal levels are less than half that.
Sarah decided the best course of action was to educate herself on the disease. This took her some time while the effects of her denial wore off. But it wasn’t the first time the mother of six had been diagnosed with diabetes.
“I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes when I had my second child in 1974,” Sarah said. “I was okay with my first child, but I contracted it with the others. But it would always clear up afterwards. My sugar always went back down a couple of weeks after I delivered.”
Sarah took a nursing course in college and learned more about the disease, but she admits that she is still frightened a little because she still doesn’t understand it.
Two years ago she was in a situation where she had to call the nurse because of rapidly decreasing sugar levels. Luckily it was not more serious than feeling a little nauseous and light-headed.
A few days later it got more serious.
“I had a feeling something would happen,” she said. “I had been to the hospital and they told me I had angina attacks. One morning I went to visit my sister for coffee and I told her ‘I have this feeling that something is going to happen to me, but I don’t know what.’ I told her I hadn’t been feeling well and I hadn’t been myself. I told her it might be a heart attack,” she said.
“My life has always been stressful,” she continued. “When you have diabetes for a long time it taxes your organs. For me it was my heart. My kidneys and lungs are okay, it’s just my heart.”
Sarah went to the hospital in Chisasibi in July 2004 and they admitted her immediately. On the morning of July 27, and with her condition worsening, she was barely conscious when the nurse told her that she would be medi-vacced to Montreal.
After that everything was a blur. Sarah suffered her first heart attack and was rushed to the Montreal General Hospital. On the plane, she suffered another heart attack and came close to death.
She woke up at the Montreal General a week later and her family was by her bedside. They cautioned her not to talk because she had a tube inserted into her esophagus.
“I remember asking for a pen and I wrote ‘where am I? They told me I was in Montreal and that I had been medi-vacced there. Then I passed out again. It took me about a month to slowly recover.”
Sarah said that her diabetes along with her smoking habit, contributed to the heart attack. Her arteries had major blockages and she would need to have surgery – and fast.
The procedure performed by Montreal doctors is called angioplasty. A catheter was inserted into her arteries and inflating them. Then, a stent (a wire mesh tube) is inserted to keep the arteries open and increase the blood flow.
Further blockages by having the stent collapse, called restenosis, are rare but do happen, they warned. A follow up bypass surgery in November 2005 unblocked one of the smaller arteries doctors couldn’t get to earlier.
Sarah lost partial feeling and mobility in her left side. She still has trouble with her speech today, but her condition is much better than it was. She has stopped smoking and eats well. She also takes five pills a day for her diabetes and to thin her blood to prevent further blockages.
“I know as a diabetic that I’m the one that’s responsible to look after myself,” said Sarah, who also has three sisters with diabetes. “It’s not the job of the doctor or the nurse. I have to watch and check my sugar and take my pills.”
“Sometimes I forget to take them when I’m traveling or rushing around, but then I know that I’ve missed my pills when I don’t feel good and my mouth starts to dry.”
Slowly, with the help of the occupational therapist in Chisasibi, Sarah learned to walk and regain her independence. She also got some of her strength back. Now, she says, she can do her laundry and dishes and most of the things she used to. She admits, however, that she still has problems with her short-term memory and forgets the smallest things.
“I really have to watch what I eat now and take care of myself. I have to make sure I don’t wear tight socks or even the way I cut my toes is a big concern,” Sarah said, adding that if she sustains an injury or gets an in-grown toenail it can become a big infection. Sometimes wounds for diabetics don’t heal and it will become gangrenous. In the worse cases, amputation is the only recourse.
Her love of her camp on Fort George Island has kept her active, something all diabetics should strive to be. Since the heart attack two years ago, she has only recently started doing things like chopping wood as she continues to recover from the long-term effects.
“I felt really helpless when I came home,” said Sarah. “I couldn’t even get at my food. Home care came in the morning to help me bathe and make breakfast, then my family would help out in the afternoons and the evenings for supper. My daughter would cut up my food for me. I used to have to use a straw to drink my tea or coffee in the morning or I would spill it. That’s how bad I shook.”
Her appetite at lunchtime had also diminished and she had to try to force herself to eat. She also said that she gets sick and tired of eating the foods recommended for diabetics by the Canada Food Guide sometimes and she will eat foods that sometimes conflict with her diet.
She also replaces some of the recommended foods with traditional fare such as goose, ptarmigan and caribou.
“Sometimes when you’re working out in the bush you don’t have access to fruits or vegetables for a long time, you just have to eat what you have,” she said. “Sometimes I just get sick of beef and chicken and pork.”
Fish seems to be the only thing she can eat regularly that is similar to beef or chicken and won’t raise her sugar levels too much. So when she’s in the bush, she eats a lot of it.
Her advice to people in Eeyou Istchee is simple. “To me, I feel sorry for the older people who don’t really understand what the disease is. You have to educate yourself about your disease so you will know how to look after yourself. My diabetes is not holding me back in the things I want to do.”