Diabetes is not a matter to be taken lightly because there are serious life altering consequences
ELMO — He was diagnosed with diabetes at age 25. At age 39, he was an amputee.
Through many years of living with diabetes James Big Beaver (Kootenai and Blackfeet) did not seriously consider his critical health condition.
“I didn’t think much about the bad stuff they (medical experts and family) talk about,” said Big Beaver. Even with the dire alerts people would warn him about: amputation, losing eyesight, sinking into a coma, and even death. “I didn’t think any of that would happen. I took it for granted.”
Big Beaver said instead the party-life road guided his decisions. Drinking excessively, taking drugs, and not the drugs he should have been administering for his life-threatening diabetic illness. Big Beaver simply didn’t care.
The hot summer day he got the news he had type 2 diabetes was a close call. “I went to a cousin’s house,” he said. “I was not feeling good.”
He was feeling extremely sluggish and tired. It was a normal day for him that did not include a “party” mode moment. “Even my eyesight was off,” he said, adding that he simply did not feel like eating anything, but got some grapes to snack on. “I thought grapes would help me out. Lucky, I didn’t eat them.”
His cousin told him he didn’t look good. “They (his cousins) called my mom and they took me to the hospital,” he said.
Big Beaver’s sugar level was outrageously high, reaching up to 600-700. Tests were immediately run. Shortly after the doctor came back into the room to tell him, “You are a diabetic.”
The decision from his cousins and mother to rush him to the hospital saved his life. The medical team told him in if he had eaten the grapes he would have sunk into diabetic coma.
His hospital stay was nearly three months of IV hook ups, medications, a stern eating plan, and plenty of talks of getting on track. Within a month Big Beaver lost 100 pounds while in the hospital. “I don’t know how that happened because all I did was lay there,” he said.
Although the medical team worked diligently to get his blood sugar down and to become stronger he said losing the weight too fast was not a good thing.
“I lost 100 pounds really fast, it almost killed me because I lost so much so fast,” Big Beaver said. “They were trying to figure out what to do with me. I was really weak.”
His diet was a 1600 calorie intake a day. As the hospital weeks passed Big Beaver started to feel “good” for once. He said after the release he stuck to the plan, “For a little bit.”
Not A Care
He said the medical advice and plan did not last with him. He was back to eating what he wanted to.
However, losing his mother not long after his diagnosis was what truly threw him into a downward spiral. She had kept him grounded for years.
“When my mom passed away I hit rock bottom,” he said about his grief and depression. “I was in a bad way. Years of struggles.”
The Dog Bite
It was an early morning and Big Beaver was startled out of his sleep at the sound of dogs. The noise he heard was one dog yelping and crying for life and the other grunting with malice.
“I was trying to save my nieces’ small dog,” he said. His sudden reaction to the dogs out of bed kicked him in gear. He jumped out of bed without his shoes on. A pit bull was tearing into his nieces’ dog on their porch. “I kicked it and it nipped me. It (the pit bull) was trying to kill our dog.”
He said the bite didn’t hurt much and it happened so fast. “It didn’t bleed,” he said. “He got me inside the toenail.”
“Later that day I didn’t think much of it. I cleaned it then went hiking in the hills with my cousins,” he said. About eight miles into the hike Big Beaver felt some pain and took off his boot and found it to be in gross condition. “It was pretty bad.”
He soon went into convulsions.
“My cousins didn’t know what was going on with me,” he said. All they knew was they had to pack him out of the mountains – an eight-mile trek. His family took him to the directly to the hospital where he was immediately put on a life flight to a Missoula hospital. Once there with no time to think about it, Big Beaver was taken in surgery. “They cut my toe off.”
The walking did it in, he said.
After he woke he heard lectures from medical team about diabetes.
According to the National Institute of Health foot problems are common in people with diabetes. Over time diabetes can cause nerve damage called diabetic neuropathy. The sensation is tingling, pain and loss of feeling in the feet. When a loss of feeling happens, one might not feel a pebble in a shoe or blister on their foot and the sores become infected. This can lower the amount of blood flow in the feet. The lack of blood can make a sore hard to heal and lead to a severe infection that never heals. Eventually the sore turns to gangrene, which are ulcers that lead to amputation.
Continued Limb Problems
After the toe amputation at age 39, Big Beaver continued to have problems with his foot. After being released from the hospital he still struggled and admits he remained stubborn about taking his health seriously.
The next hospital stay his middle toe was removed.
Some time passed and all his toes were removed. His illness set his mindset back again he said, “I quit everything.”
It was another hot day in Elmo — this time at the powwow where his family noticed his toes were gangrene. “You could smell it,” he said.
His lower leg was eventually amputated.
The Help, Community Health
Sometime after the amputation of his leg Big Beaver said he went into another deep depression. He stayed home, isolated himself, and shut out the world. “One morning I closed my curtains,” he said. “I wouldn’t go out. I quit drumming, singing, and going to jump dances.”
But his family and community did not let him give up.
His sisters put a welfare check out on him. “Nurses came to check on me,” he said. It was a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Health Department Community Nurse Sarah Meeks; and THD Guided Care Elmo Community Health Representative Colleen Couture.
“I opened up the door. ‘What’s this all about?’” he said. They told him they wanted to help him get on track. Big Beaver said he bucked around a little trying to be stubborn and let the depression take control. “But I finally gave in and said ‘Okay I’ll do it.’” He said it was because he knew the ladies were from the Elmo community. “If it was anyone else I would not trust them.”
This is where Big Beaver experienced his awakening. He said he realized abusing himself and remaining in depression was not going to bring his mom back. He said the depression and feeling sorry for his self was not the answer. He woke up knowing there are things, reasons and people to live for.
“Even being in a depression they (THD team) believed in me,” he said. Big Beaver developed a relationship and started trusting the team more and more. “They became my best friends.”
A little correction now goes a long way with Big Beaver. “If one of them sees me drinking a pop they yell out, ‘Hey what are you doing with that!’” he said with a chuckle.
“We approach it as a team and work with people struggling with health conditions,” Meeks said. “There are different health issues one might face: diabetic, high blood pressure, or social needs. We come in as a team to do a basic overall assessment and ask, ‘What does this person need to help them in overcoming a health problem.’”
Meeks said the THD community health team program does what a doctor can’t.
“We meet them on their turf,” she said. “If a person has not been to a doctor in years, we take them and go advocate for them. We help in following up in referrals. We support follow through.”
It takes years of trust with some, she said. But being a part of their lives and being there to help them is key.
“They gave it their all. I just had to meet them half way and I did,” Big Beaver said. “I needed that encouragement from them.”
His family is a huge backing to his recovery too. “My sister and brothers encouraged me a lot,” he said.
Big Beaver's ex-girlfriend of 10 years, Amber Matthews support and care for him over the years meant the world to him he said. Through all the surgeries, Amber, and his son Cody, and daughter Alexis, were at the hospital every day. Matthews worked at the hospital which worked in their favor he added. "She's the one who took care of me. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here," Big Beaver admitted. Although their relationship dissolved nearly five years ago the two remain great friends. She's still a reassurance to his upturn.
Meeks said the THD Guided Care program funded by the Tribal Health Improvement Program allow THD to add team members in all the Flathead Reservation communities. “It’s not an in-and-out service like going to the doctor,” she said. “We spend a lot of time to work with folks to get rolling in right directions.”
Meeks said the team could not do it without the dedicated support of the THD administrators, “The leaders are supportive of making this all happen,” she said. “They are good at listening to the people who are doing the work with the patient. They (administration) advocate for them in a different way.”
On Track To Healthier Living
To this day Big Beaver enjoys being active. “I get up early and make a plan,” he said. “I eat breakfast in the right way. I don’t eat anything fried and no pasta or breads.”
Big Beaver said he gave up a lot of foods to be where he’s at today. During his health and self-care rebellion days he was pushing 400 pounds wearing 4X clothing. “I was pretty big,” he admits. Now he works to maintain his age and 6’2” height weight of 240 pounds. “I don’t eat candy, but I keep it around if my blood sugar goes low. Other than that nothing sweet.”
He jumps on his bike every morning to burn the carbs and keep his exercise lifestyle going consistently. As soon as his leg and artificial limb is secure and strong he said he’s going start a weightlifting workout program with a trainer at the Elmo fitness center. “I still have to wait for doctors to tell me I can do a work out,” he said. “I’m listening to the doctors now, I don’t want to reinjure or get another cut.”
Another outdoor activity Big Beaver keeps up with is hunting. “Me and my son like to hunt. We walk as much as we can. We get out of the truck and walk hills; we just don’t drive around,” he said.
Every nine months his artificial leg is changed due to the amputation area shrinking each year. In the beginning the change was once a year, but with the artificial technology improving he receives a newer leg with his fresher outlook sooner.
Another inspiration he has is running his own business that keeps him outside and active, and helping others. He came up with the idea of a lawn service, with his name being Big Beaver, he named his company Beaver Trimming. “It’s a security too. I can’t work a job, I’m not fit for it,” he said.
He’s not alone in his business either. “My kids come and help me whenever they can and they get a few bucks here and there,” Big Beaver said.
The people around him don’t stop at the support level. A friend backed him in the business idea and took on the task to develop business cards, shirts, and hats for him. He was even gifted with a couple of lawn mowers to get him started. “With that I’ve been keeping busy with the lawns,” he said.
His long-term fitness goal is to play basketball again. But first wait. Heal up. And get stronger.
A Message From Experience
“When someone tells me they are borderline diabetic I get frustrated,” Big Beaver said. “I say that’s stupid to tell them (borderline). They need to get ahold of it (diabetes). He tells the borderline diabetics to start taking care of it now in order to avoid the pills and (insulin) shots.
His message to those who are diabetic or pre diabetic: “Take care of your self. Do you want to look like me? Or go through all the trauma, mood swings and depression?
Blood cots are a daily risk for him, but he keeps optimistic. “I Thank God I wake up every day,” Big Beaver said. “I should have been doing that (healthier life) a long time ago.”
This article was updated to include information about additional family support.