Diabetes is a devastating disease. Untreated, it kills. Even when treated, it dramatically changes one’s life. Tribal member Sarah Henson, 68, of Lost City, Okla., is one example of many Native Americans affected by the disease. The active housewife enjoyed the life of a “homemaker,” working “from sunrise to sundown,” maintaining a home for her husband Mose and their nine children. She enjoyed playing with her children and cooking for them and her husband, as well as family and visitors. After the children started going to school, a highlight of her daily routine was meeting them when they arrived home on the school bus. Like any homemaker, she did a variety of household chores. “I did a lot of canning and sewed my own quilts.” Using her hands to sew the quilts was a favorite activity.
In the late 1980s, she noticed that her quilt-making energy began to diminish. Completing a quilt took longer and longer. “I was tired all the time.” She remembers drinking water constantly, always sweating, and she experienced a “really fast” weight loss.
Concerned, in 1981, she went to W.W. Hastings Hospital for an examination and learned she was a Type I diabetic, which is more serious than Type II and may require dialysis. It can lead to kidney failure, blindness, amputations and heart disease.
“It scared me,” she said. “I had seen a lot of diabetics and what shape they were in.”
Initially, regular insulin was prescribed twice a day by injection. Later, NPH, another type of insulin, was prescribed. In addition, she had to monitor her blood sugar and alter her diet. “If my blood sugar level was too low, I would eat something or drink orange juice, then I would take my shot.” Through medication and an altered lifestyle, she maintained. But, following a physician’s examination in 1998, she received more bad news.
“My doctor told me I needed to be on kidney dialysis or I would die,” she said. [Ed. Please be sure to learn about the option of a kidney, or kidney and pancreas transplant.]
Since then, Henson has been going to the Tahlequah Dialysis Clinic every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In a long room with 20 recliners, as she calls them, lined against the wall, for dialysis patients. After choosing one of the recliners, a nurse gives her a shot of local anesthetic, numbing her arm. Tubes from the dialysis machine nearby are attached to the arm, and Henson spends three and one half hours letting the machine pump blood out of her arm, through a filtering system, and back into her arm.
“A lot of people think it hurts, but I’m used to it,” she said. From her many trips to the dialysis clinic she’s seen some of the same patients who started the same time she did, the youngest at 26. ” Now I see some of those same people in wheelchairs,” Henson said. “I just hope that I don’t get worse.”
After starting dialysis, she said, her eyesight became progressively “blurry” and she had to start wearing glasses. Now, she is losing eyesight in her right eye and she is unable to sew quilts by hand.
She also has trouble sleeping, she says. “Sometimes I wake up at 1 a.m. in the morning, and I can’t go back to sleep.”
In order to get adequate sleep, she has to take sleeping pills prescribed by her doctor.
Henson has had to make many adjustments to accommodate her lifestyle. “When you find out you’re diabetic, you have to listen to your doctor and do what he says.”
Before diabetes, she, like others, could eat almost anything. As a diabetic, she has had to plan meals with low sugar content for years, and now she no longer craves foods with sugar. She said she couldn’t stand giving up her favorite foods at first.
“I can’t eat beans and potatoes,” she said.
Henson has to watch what she eats because certain foods, like beans, while high in protein, are also high in phosphorus, which can cause the bones to become brittle. Henson maintains her diet by eating healthy foods that she likes, including fish and chicken. She tries to avoid pork, cooking oils, salt and sugar, and she eats less. “You just have to eat small portions.” She also exercises regularly, walking around her house and to the mailbox and back every evening.
She says she didn’t always listen and now her deteriorating kidneys and eyesight, along with her bruised arms from the injections, are constant reminders of the potentially, deadly disease.
“I tell my family, be proud of your health, because when you’re in my position, you don’t know what will happen next.”
Two of her nine children have been diagnosed as borderline diabetic, but with proper care and improved medication, she is hopeful that they can avoid dialysis and the progressive deterioration that often comes with the disease.