One Anishinabe kwe’s inspiring diabetes battle

Irene Altiman this past Mother’s Day when she participated in the Sudbury Rocks Annual Run/Walk for diabetes. Event coordinators were so inspired by her story they invited her to speak at a sponsor’s dinner on the Friday evening before the race.

Not all losses are bad for you

by Beverly Abotossaway

Heart Disease and Diabetes in Canada is taking its toll on this country’s First Nation population. Statistical data indicates that First Nations people have higher rates in all demographics for heart disease and diabetes. Studies further indicate the same group are suffering related illnesses as strokes and other chronic diseases associated with diabetes. In recent stats the overall rates of heart disease and stroke have declined in Canada, however among First Nations peoples they are continually increasing. Chronic diseases are therefore also on the rise and a growing concern for the morbidity of this country’s FN peoples living with heart disease and diabetes. The staggering stats are revealing and too significant to ignore. If Canada wants to reform the mortality rate of its FN population then let me tell you about my sister Irene Altiman.

Irene’s story starts approximately five years ago in the spring of 2010. She was dealt the greatest challenge of her life in May as she suffered an unexpected heart attack at the age of 38. In 2010, Irene weighed over 200 pounds, she was a smoker, had high blood pressure and was already on blood pressure medication for four years. In hindsight, she actually began experiencing symptoms around Christmas of 2009 whereby she felt some pain in her neck and down her arms. It wasn’t extreme pain but uncomfortable and like most people, she just ignored them thinking other causes. It should have been her wakeup call and realized that things needed to be changed.

In late May 2010 she awoke early on a Wednesday with severe pain in her neck and it radiated towards her jaw and halfway down her arms. She woke her spouse Delano, who immediately gave her Tylenol and massaged her muscles to alleviate the pain. The pain subsided and all symptoms vanished. Two days later on Friday, her symptoms came back and with the same treatment, Tylenol and massaging, they disappeared again. The pain only lasted about 10 minutes each time. Visiting family in Sault Ste. Marie the neck pain symptoms returned for a longer duration. On Sunday morning the pain was more intense whereby waking her from her sleep. Her husband Delano finally put his foot down and demanded she go to hospital. Once at hospital, Irene shared her symptoms with the nurse who gave an initial prognosis that Irene had suffered a heart attack. Irene immediately went into denial, she questioned how this could possibly be? She did not believe people in their ‘30s had heart attacks. After the initial lab work and testing it showed elevated levels in her blood work that indicated a heart episode. She was told to wait in emergency for six hours and the test would be redone. Second results confirmed she had in fact had a heart attack. Irene was at the hospital for over seven hours when the reality of her situation hit home. The repercussions of her unhealthy lifestyle had just slapped her across the face. She quit smoking cold turkey that day and hasn’t had another cigarette since. Her husband, wanting to support his wife, followed suit the next day.

I remember that day so clearly as Irene finally called us to inform us of her prognosis and predicament. We were all in shock and we too went into denial. We all immediately dropped everything and travelled to Sault Ste. Marie. Understandably, Irene hesitated to call us because we are a huge family of parents and 10 children but only a handful of us were able to go immediately. We tend to crowd waiting rooms (it happened when my son’s accident happened too). Our family is very close and we’ve always supported one another through good and bad. It was determined that she would have to be flown to Sudbury and admitted to Health Sciences North for further treatment. All of our family went home with plans to regroup in Sudbury once a bed was available for Irene. Again, as many of us could, we reconvened in Sudbury while she underwent her procedure: angioplasty with a stent to repair the damage. My sister shared that while in care at Health Sciences North, the practitioners there told her they expected to see her in six months to a year with another heart attack. She felt doomed, no hope and wondering if the health care providers give such terrible outcomes with no comfort or words of encouragement to all the patients. Initially, this made her give up and didn’t see point in trying to better her health or quit smoking because they reiterated that even if she changed she was going to have another heart attack anyway. This made her very angry but it was the catalyst, although bleak and terrible, that set her in motion to prove them wrong. Irene was released after seven days with a long list of prescriptions: two for cholesterol, three for blood pressure and one daily low dose aspirin. Irene was told to eat low fat, low cholesterol and low sodium foods. Irene was also referred to a dietitian and physio therapist for cardio patients in Little Current. She is also scheduled for a four week follow-up appointment in Sudbury with a heart specialist.

Irene remained at home for three weeks to recover. She was left to ponder her fate of potentially having another heart attack sometime later that year. Once given the okay at the discretion of her family doctor she returned to work after four weeks. It was there that she learned of a book ‘How To Prevent and Reverse Heart Attack’ by Dr. Esselstyn given to her by her boss at the time, Peggy Young. The idea was to go totally fat free vegan which means: no meat, no fish, no dairy, no eggs, no oils of any kind not even olive oil, nothing enriched—so no white breads, rice, no avocadoes as they are very high in fat. So what does she eat now? Irene’s rule now is she consumes nothing with a face or mother. Her diet consists of beans and lentils, whole grains, fruits (but minimal as they are high in sugar), vegetables (lots of them), uses only raw cane sugar but minimal, she doesn’t drink juices like apple or orange as they too are high in sugar. She’s also had to supplement with vitamin B12 and Iron and she gets her Omega 3s from ground Flax. She occasionally drinks black coffee but minimal as well.

After only three months of the vegan diet she lost over 50 pounds of weight and was off three of her blood pressure medications and two medications for her heart was taken away! She also remained smoke-free. It’s now at the five year mark and just a few months ago she was taken off all her medications and only takes daily low dose aspirin. What a true testament to perseverance and overcoming a near impossible feat. She sure showed her doctors that no way was she having another heart attack. Irene cautions that anyone going vegan does take planning as you need to get bloodwork done and to take your weight and measurements. You also have to consume a lot of water.

Irene shares her success now as she’s done talks at community health centre workshops and created a Facebook vegan cooking page. She also encouraged her spouse Delano to go vegan and he did as it lowered his blood pressure and he lost over 50 pounds of weight. Our nephew Robin, who was diagnosed Type II diabetes a few years ago, went vegan too and lost a great deal of weight and may soon be free from taking insulin. The vegan diet works!

Out of all her successes in taking back control of her health, Irene’s family, friends and supporters are extremely proud because this past Mother’s Day she participated in the Sudbury Rocks Annual Run/Walk for Diabetes. She participated in the 5km run with her training starting at the end of January. She set her goal to be able to complete the run without walking and managed to raise $600 in pledges. She shared her story with run coordinators for a chance to win an entry into a race of her choice, although she said wasn’t too concerned about winning another race entry. The event coordinators were so inspired by heard her story they invited her to speak at a sponsor’s dinner on the Friday evening before the race. They told her it is accomplishments like hers that it is what the Diabetes Run is all about. She was an inspiration to many with her talk and hope she continues to inspire more people to take control of their heath too. Finishing with a time of 34:56, it was so amazing to witness and I still feel a lump in my throat when I think of her accomplishment as she crossed the Finish Line. I am one proud sister as I get to say my sister is no longer waiting for a heart attack or waiting for Type II diabetes to occur and has taken back control of her life and health. She strongly encourages others to try as anything is possible.