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Reservation living good for tribal elders with diabetes

SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – Catherine LaPointe has diabetes. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, American Indian adults are 2.3 times as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes. LaPointe is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Sault Ste. Marie, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and lives on trust land in a new housing community the elders named Odenaang, or “a place of many hearts.” Here is her story.

Indian Country Today: How old are you?

Catherine LaPointe: I am 77 years old. I was born May 14, 1931.

ICT: How did you find out you were diabetic?

LaPointe: I worked in a high school kitchen in 1971 and lifted too many heavy foods which gave me a hernia. In 1972 I went in for surgery for my hernia and they found out I had diabetes.

All this time that I have been a diabetic, I have managed to keep myself off insulin. I am on a medication called Glucophage. I take one tablet three times a day to control my diabetes.

ICT: What type of diabetes do you have?

LaPointe: Type 2.

ICT: What advice would you give other American Indians recently diagnosed with diabetes?

LaPointe: Please tell each new diabetic to go on a strict diet and they can get rid of being a diabetic. If I had known that when I first became diabetic, I’ll tell you what, things would have been different. When I was diagnosed as a diabetic, the doctor didn’t tell me much about it.

ICT: How often do you check your blood sugar?

LaPointe: I only check my blood sugar in the mornings now. This morning, I took my sugar and it was 150; but yesterday I went to a cookout for my sister’s birthday, and I overindulged. I had a piece of chicken, a hamburger and a sausage, but I didn’t have bread and I thought I’d get away with it. I had a small tablespoon of potato salad and I had about 2 tablespoons of spaghetti salad and that’s all I ate there. But then I had a scoop of ice cream and a piece of birthday cake. That’s where I went wrong. You know, diabetics are just like alcoholics: they can’t pass up certain foods.

ICT: What is your normal blood sugar level?

LaPointe: Usually my blood sugar is 130. When I get lower than 130 I get dizzy.

ICT: What is safe for you to eat?

LaPointe: Fruits, vegetables and lean meats like chicken and turkey. Diabetics are supposed to eat three meals a day, but they told me to snack in between meals with celery or carrot sticks every two hours. And when you have a beverage, you don’t have a sweet one; you have the sugar-free drink or diet soda pop.

ICT: Has having diabetes ever stopped you from doing something that you wanted to do?

LaPointe: Yes – going to weddings. It wouldn’t stop me if I knew how to control my eating and drinking the wrong things. Alcohol is way too much for a diabetic. But you can have one small bottle of light beer if your sugar is OK. When I went to my sister’s yesterday, I had a bottle of light beer because my sugar was 114. But if my sugar was 140, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

ICT: What is it like as a Native with diabetes living on a reservation?

LaPointe: Well, it is really a great thing for me to live with my Native people. But Native people eat a lot of carbohydrates, which is starch and sugars. But living on a reservation is fine because every Thursday night we go to our Indian language class and that is bringing back our Native language. And we have a potluck; most of the Indian people there are diabetics and they try to cook as healthy as they can, but there are a few that make starchy foods. A lot of times my strength for passing up old-time recipes is not good.

ICT: What about exercise and physical activity?

LaPointe: I am an outgoing person – I’m here and I’m there and I’m everywhere. But one thing that I have a problem with is exercising. If I do my housework, why isn’t that exercise?

ICT: What kind of help do you get from the tribe?

LaPointe: The tribe is where I belong: they do so much for me. They bring in nutritious meals Monday through Friday that have vegetables, fruit and salad and a 3-ounce portion of meat. I also have a registered nurse that comes in every two weeks to check my blood pressure, heart rate and sugar.

ICT: If you could choose one special thing to do in the next 10 years, what would that be?

LaPointe: I would like my name to be on a doorway saying “meet this counselor, she is wonderful.” There is so much grief and sorrow in this world from so many things, like drugs and alcohol and husband and wife abuse. That is what I would like to talk to people about.

ICT: Tell us about your job.

LaPointe: I work Mondays and Wednesdays at the tribal health center. When diabetics come in for their checkups, they don’t eat; so I serve coffee, juice and graham and saltine crackers for them to bring their sugar levels back up after their appointment.

ICT: How did you learn how to take care of your diabetes?

LaPointe: In 1975, I went into the hospital with a high blood sugar attack and I had internal boils in unmentionable places and I almost met my Waterloo. But the doctor sat me down before I was discharged and told me what I had to watch out for.

He asked me what I thought the problem was that had brought on the boils. I said, “Well, I used to go shopping with my husband and hide candy bars all over the house and I wouldn’t tell him.” My husband knew I was a diabetic but he didn’t know what I had to stay away from. So the doctor told me that was why I had the sugar attack and the boils: they were from an infection from the chocolate and sugar.

When I was released, I told my husband there was one thing I wanted to make sure he knew: that if he wanted a pie and ice cream, to stop at the truck stop and get it. There was going to be no more sweets in this house. That was just as hard for me as it was for him. He did – he stopped at the truck stop and got his pie and ice cream once or twice a week. He really took good care of me and my diabetes after that.

When you are a diabetic, it affects all your organs as well. I have heart disease from diabetes that I found out about in 1993, after my husband passed away.

ICT: Do you ever get frustrated with your disease?

LaPointe: Some days I feel like throwing all these medicines I take down the toilet and forgetting about it. You have to be a diabetic to know the feeling of being taken away from life’s comforts. When we were little, we could eat anything that we wanted to and when we got older, all those foods became wrong for us to indulge in.

Each time I go to the table I ask Creator to give me his strength and his courage and his confidence to make up my mind that I am not going to overeat.

Catherine LaPointe’s gallette (Indian bread)

3 cups flour
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder
Dash salt
1/4 cup Splenda (or other sugar substitute)
1-1/2 to 2 cups milk
1-1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup blueberries (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix together dry ingredients. Mix in the milk and oil until the dough can be lightly kneaded. If using blueberries, gently add them toward the end of kneading. Pat into a small cake pan and bake for about 30 minutes.

One 2-ounce piece would count as one carbohydrate serving.