Exercise and Traditional Foods Help Community Health Worker with Diabetes to Get Off Insulin

For more than 20 years, Community Health Worker (CHW) Sarah Winter has been serving Kingfisher Lake First Nation, an Oji-Cree community of 500 located 350 kilometers north of Sioux Lookout.

Growing up, Sarah attended Stirland Lake High School, one of the last residential schools to operate in Canada. After high school she began her career as a community health representative, then retrained as a social worker. She’s now working as a CHW.

Over the years Sarah has seen a dramatic increase in the number of people with diabetes in the community. “When I was starting there were only six diabetics. Now there are 70,” she relates. The disease is also affecting younger people.

Sarah blames the high prices and low availability of fresh food in the community. Processed and junk foods are cheap and easily available, but she says a bag of cherries costs about $20, four litres of two percent milk is $19, and a box of Multigrain Cheerios fetches $9.

In July 2015, Sarah herself was diagnosed with diabetes. “It was a surprise, it started coming on all of a sudden,” she recalls. “I started having blurred vision and I wondered what was going on.”

Sarah remembers feeling angry after she got the diagnosis, and not wanting people in the community to know that she—a CHW—had developed diabetes. But she quickly decided to take charge of her health. “I started watching what I ate and walking. Since then I’ve lost 30 pounds.” Within six months she was off insulin, and was able to lower her daily dose of metformin.

Now she’s getting ready to share her story, in the hopes of inspiring the diabetics she works with to live healthier lives. She’s concerned that a lot of diabetics in the community are living in denial about their condition.

Her message is simple: “You don’t have to be on insulin. You don’t have to be on three different kinds of medication. You just have to watch what you eat and you need to exercise. That’s it. And monitor your blood sugar every day.”

Sarah credits her return to a traditional diet with helping to get her diabetes under control. She says she hardly eats store-bought food anymore. Now, she says, “I mostly eat fish and moose. When I eat those kinds of foods, my sugar is OK.”

In her spare time, Sarah loves to get out on the land. She also likes to fish.

“My parents always tell me, when they were living off the land, way back, there was no such thing as diabetes. They worked hard, they were active, they had to walk for miles and miles.”

For her, the solution to the community’s diabetes problem is clear. “Our answer: it’s in our land, our water.”