Teaming up to tackle diabetes with positive change


Working with a diabetes educator means being in a partnership that can change your life for the better. Just ask Jennine Buffalo.

After being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes five years ago, Jennine Buffalo broke down and cried during her first appointment with Joanne Siemens, a dietitian and diabetes educator. Jennine was aware of the disease because she had both an aunt and a cousin with type 1 diabetes; each had a leg amputation and died due to diabetes-related complications

Joanne offered Jennine a tissue from the box that’s always on her desk. She knows how devastating a diabetes diagnosis can be. Joanne then immediately offered Jennine some peace of mind.

“When people walk into my office after being diagnosed, they look like they’ve been hit by a train. And when a train like diabetes hits your life, you experience every emotion—from feeling like ‘I can beat this’ to ‘This is a death sentence,’ ” says Joanne, who works on the Maskwacis reserve, a First Nations community of 16,000 in Alberta. “Many people think they caused their diabetes because they gained weight, drank alcohol, or did something wrong. My job is to help them get rid of the guilt and shame, because the depression and self-blame that go with diabetes can be worse than the actual diabetes. I tell them the reason people end up with problems is because their diabetes wasn’t well managed. And I tell them they did the right thing by coming to see me.”

The two began to meet monthly—and communicate regularly by text—to help Jennine, who was then 35, improve how she monitors her blood glucose (sugar) and to make the lifestyle changes necessary to ensure her good health. 

As a result of their partnership, Jennine eats less red meat and more chicken and fish. Thanks to personalized cooking classes offered by Joanne, she began experimenting in the kitchen, preparing dishes such as brown rice pilaf and beef barley soup. She also stopped buying pop and chips, and prepares big bowls of salad instead. And when she was unsure about how nutritious certain foods were, she’d send Joanne a text. “For example, I would ask her advice on whether pistachios are better than sunflower seeds and if I should choose salted or roasted,” says Jennine, who lost 30 pounds.

With Joanne’s encouragement, Jennine also become more active. She sings and dances at cultural Aboriginal hand games tournaments, and she and her partner and their four children regularly get out for family walks, swims in the lake and bike rides. “Our family is a lot happier now. My hope is that this [change] will help my kids grow up to be healthy adults,” says Jennine. An added bonus: Jennine recently was able to stop taking the metformin initially prescribed to manage her diabetes. 

After a year, Jennine had a much more positive outlook on the future. “In the beginning when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want anyone to know I had diabetes. But I’m not embarrassed anymore. I’m alive and I’m healthy. And working with Joanne helped save my life.”

Fast forward to today: Jennine has reached and maintained her weight goal. She walks a lot, and has an A1C of 6.6. She has a burger once in awhile, but otherwise she avoids fast foods and red meats. She eats a lot of vegetables, and has switched from white bread to multigrain and rye bread. She loves having fruit, berries, and nuts for snacks. She drinks mostly water and makes homemade smoothies. She loves to cook, and her latest passion is the air fryer. Her next culinary adventure will be the dehydrator. 

Jennine’s increased skills and confidence means she has become more independent (though she still keeps in touch with Joanne) and maintains regular appointments with the medical staff at Maskwacis Health Services. “Joanne helped me see that there was a lot I could do to prevent the stuff I was so scared of. With her support and guidance, all my fears and worries were gone,” says Jennine.

Did you know?

2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin. Today, more Canadians have diabetes than ever before. Diabetes or prediabetes affects 1 in 3 Canadians. One in 2 young adults will develop diabetes in their remaining lifetime. We can’t wait another 100 years to End Diabetes.  #LetsEndDiabetes Visit 100 Years of Insulin to learn more.

(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Autumn 2016. Photos (Jennine Buffalo, Joanne Siemens) by Mustafa Eric. Reprinted with permission of Diabetes Canada ©2021.)