“A lot of health professionals in the country still believe type two diabetes isn’t reversible or that you can’t go into remission,
My program, tailored to suit the lifestyle and culture of the Bourke participants, was not claiming to cure the disease but manage the impacts.
We say remission rather than cure because once people put weight back on, especially around the liver and pancreas area, they will get diabetes again so it’s a bit like cancer in that respect,”
Now thanks to a program called Too Deadly for Diabetes, Barbara Flick, the CEO of the Bourke Aboriginal Health Service , Margaret Grimes and a group of 26 other Bourke residents are tackling the disease head on.
It’s a simple program of monitored diet and exercise under the guidance of Sydney exercise physiologist Ray Kelly — and the women said
Ms Flick asked him to come to Bourke after seeing him speak at a National Aboriginal Community Health Organisation conference.d their lives had changed dramatically.
Looking forward to life
Ms Flick has been planning on running another program for the local community in June.
She said she had worked in health for 47 years, including a role as a national indigenous health advisor, and said she was blown away by what she had witnessed in Bourke.
“A number of us have gone off blood pressure medication, we’ve lost weight and we’re all feeling so much better so excited about life and planning for the future and looking forward to their grandchildren growing up.”
Margaret Grimes says she was simply waiting to die after years of living with type 2 diabetes.
“I’m over giving myself needles every day, every night at the moment it’s just like I’m living for the needles,” said the 59-year-old woman from Bourke in Western NSW.
“I don’t really have a life at the moment. I’m trapped by this diabetes — I honestly am trapped.”
She was diagnosed more than 20 years ago and is not alone in her despair over life with the disease.
Barbara Flick, the chief executive officer of the Bourke Aboriginal Health Service, was diagnosed in 1986.
“It’s been daily torture for me, and the information I used to get which is still being given out today I never saw any improvement in my condition,” said Ms Flick.
“I believed that my life journey was to move on to renal failure and die. I believed that was my path,” she said.
Taking control of their destiny
Ms Flick’s mother died 10 years ago from complications from diabetes. She recalled her mother challenged her on her death bed not to succumb to the disease.
“I’ve lost fifteen kilos and my blood sugar levels are normal. I’ve gone from having five insulin injections a day to one small one in the morning and one small one at night,” said Ms Flick.
The most dramatic change has been for Ms Grimes, who has gone from four insulin injections a day to none and her sugar level readings have dropped from 17 to between six and seven.
“My doctor, he couldn’t be happier either — he couldn’t believe when I’d take my little book in and show him my readings,” she said.
Ms Flick asked him to come to Bourke after seeing him speak at a National Aboriginal Community Health Organisation conference.
“A lot of health professionals in the country still believe type two diabetes isn’t reversible or that you can’t go into remission,” said Mr Kelly.
He said his program, tailored to suit the lifestyle and culture of the Bourke participants, was not claiming to cure the disease but manage the impacts.
“We say remission rather than cure because once people put weight back on, especially around the liver and pancreas area, they will get diabetes again so it’s a bit like cancer in that respect,” he said.
Aboriginal people most affected by diabetes
These monumental wins for the two women were small by comparison to battles others still face.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were almost four times more likely than non-Indigenous Australians to have diabetes, according to Diabetes Australia.
That’s little comfort for those who have it. Nor are figures from a 2016 Grattan Institute report showing only a quarter of the nearly one million Australians diagnosed with type 2 diabetes get the monitoring and treatment recommended for their condition.
Disease specialist Professor Paul Zimmett said despite a world class reputation for treatment and management of the disease, more needed to be done.
“We certainly have to do much better for our Indigenous community, they have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, they’ve got some of the highest rates of complications of diabetes.”
The Monash University professor of diabetes co-chaired a national diabetes strategy advisory group in 2014 and is Victoria’s Senior Australian of the Year.
Professor Zimmett acknowledged Australia’s medical care of the disease was equal to anywhere in the world, but there were remote and rural areas who weren’t benefitting because of a lack of resources.
“If you can prevent many complications of diabetes, kidney disease, eye disease, the need for dialysis, there’s huge cost savings,” he said.
He said he was disappointed the government failed to implement many of the group’s recommendations, including the need for longitudinal studies.
“To monitor the risk factors and new cases and deaths from diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease so that we actually know what is happening with the money that is pouring in for prevention,” he said.
The Federal Government might be hesitating, but not so Professor Alex Brown, team leader of Aboriginal Health Research at the South Australia Health and Medical Research Institute, who is three years into a comprehensive study of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
“We hope to recruit about 4000 people to track over years to understand what the causes of diabetes, and the complications of diabetes are,” said Professor Brown.
The study involves initial screening including eyes, hearts and kidneys and then annual follow ups.
“This could answer things about the development of diabetes in Indigenous populations here in Australia,” he said.