By: Greg Peerenboom
The panel for an exercise machine is shown with guests in the background during the official opening of the new Diabetes Center for Excellence, on Wednesday in Akwesasne. GREG PEERENBOOM/Staff photo.
For Debra Martin, local treatment of diabetes was something of a joke when she started many years ago as a nurse in the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal community.
“We called it ‘sugar by Jesus’,” said Martin, the former director of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Health Services, on the U.S. side of Akwesasne.
“I could count the number of people on my hand,” she said, holding up her right hand as she faced a large crowd of dignitaries and residents.
There was an important reason for the gathering, which took place Wednesday in a spacious activity room that housed about 20 types of exercise equipment.
Martin was one of the speakers on hand to officially open the Diabetes Center for Excellence.
Unfortunately, it is the “ravaging” – as one speaker phrased it – increase of diabetes that pressured the community to take measures.
The diabetes rate in the Akwesasne St. Regis tribe is 16.3% – double the U.S. average of 8.6%.
“This is totally unacceptable,” said Chief Ron Lafrance, Jr., who counted himself as a contributor to the dire statistic.
Years of fundraising – from golf tournaments to family garage sales – created a $600,000 commitment that brought on board federal and tribal agencies.
The end result was $3 million in grants, to build the multi-faceted diabetes clinic, located just north of Route 37 in Generation Park.
Lafrance added it’s appropriate the 25,000-square-foot diabetes centre is located in Generation Park, where a playground and seniors centre are almost side-by-side – a symbol of care for elders and a better future for children.
“This is the only diabetes clinic of its kind in the Eastern Seaboard,” Martin said.
Martin said the educational and fitness opportunities, which includes an indoor pool, are worth the investment.
“Diabetes can be cured,” she said, referring to Type 2, which can be erased through better nutrition and fitness.
Other services will also be available: foot exams, an endocrinologist and for general consultations, as needed.
Another well-being service is guided relaxation sessions in addition to the teaching kitchen, which instructors will be able to show and teach healthy living cooking techniques, specifically for diabetics.
Senior government officials deflected credit for the funding bestowed on local Mohawks.
Lee Telega, state director for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Rural Development, said it’s the leadership of Martin and others who make it possible for a community to rally behind a cause.
Current Let’s Get Healthy Program co-ordinator Heather Garrow was visibly emotional when speaking of former health-care colleagues who have passed away.
Garrow said a fruit tree will be planted in their honour in the spring.
Area diabetes consultant for United South and Eastern Tribes Inc., Dianna Richter, called the health-care contributions “phenomenal.”