At age 31, Rainier Ward, a drug and alcohol addictions worker, has dealt with more than his share of challenges: He was severely bullied in grade school, began drinking at 13, and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in his 20s. He experienced diabetes denial—his health got worse, and he felt so helpless he thought he might die. On top of all this, he has struggled with obesity for most of his life—at his heaviest, two years ago, he weighed 585 pounds. “When you are big, you feel people are always judging you,” he says.
And yet this First Nations man from Metepenagiag, a Mi’kmaq community just west of Miramichi in New Brunswick, has made a remarkable turnaround in his life. He has been sober for more 10 years, and has lost more than 150 pounds with a new diet and exercise regimen. “I used to have a hard time just walking up steps, but now my body can do things I never thought it could do—including skipping, jumping jacks, and weightlifting,” he says.
As well, Ward has become an unofficial spokesperson for Live Well | Bien Vivre health coaching program. Through presentations he makes to groups in First Nations communities as well as his Instagram feed, he is spreading a message of hope and recovery to other First Nations people who are struggling with addiction issues and/or diabetes management challenges. Ward, who this year received a Diabetes Canada Kurt Kroesen Inspiration Award (to recognize those who have overcome great odds to manage their diabetes and who continue to live a fulfilling, active and inspiring life), is also featured in a video about his journey, which was created by Live Well | Bien Vivre.
I am determined to do everything I can to have longevity and good health and live the best life I can live
says Ward. “I personally believe that diabetes will kill more First Nations people than drugs and alcohol ever will. We need to take care of ourselves and each other.”
6 steps on the road to healing
Here are Rainier Ward’s tips
1 Take responsibility for your health “I had been sick for a while—I would get colds for weeks at a time, I was constantly drained of energy, I was having bladder problems because of all the excess sugar in my system. But I was scared to go to the doctor because I knew what the verdict would be. When I was finally diagnosed at 28, it sent me into a spiral. I was scared because I had seen a lot of people in my family affected by diabetes. My grandfather died from complications due to diabetes (heart disease). I have so many family members who would have lived longer lives had they managed their disease better, and I didn’t want it to be a death sentence [for me]. I was taking such poor care of myself that I thought I was going to die. I knew I couldn’t go on living forever with reckless abandonment. I needed to make big changes.”
2 Believe change is possible “I had been depressed—and even suicidal. Every day felt like the worst day of my life. Now I feel every day is filled with possibility, and I’m thankful when I wake up in the morning and put my feet on the floor. I’m just a kid from the rez, but if I can change, I truly believe there’s hope for everyone.”
3 Set a goal “I was self-medicating my depression with food. I had quit drinking but I replaced one addiction with another. I used food to try and help myself feel better. There’s the adage—‘I’m unhappy because I eat and I eat because I’m unhappy.’ It was a vicious cycle. [When] I quit pop and juice and sugary drinks, within four months I lost about 40 pounds. I started walking every night for five kilometres on the track inside the gym at the local health centre. I’m a big guy—six foot five—so my goal is to be about 300 pounds.”
4 Find support “The Live Well | Bien Vivre coaching program (see ‘Coaching for Better Health’) is a great asset for people who need personal coaching and reinforcement to help them achieve their goals. I am also thankful to be part of a First Nations community that encourages me. I look to my community to prop me up when I can’t prop myself up. I’ve always had the wonderful support of my family—I have 10 sets of aunts and uncles and 40 cousins. Most of all, I’m thankful to my mother, Wanda, who never gave up on me. She has been my biggest champion and loves me unconditionally. Even in my darkest moments she has always been there for me.”
5 Move on from setbacks “I was starting to lose weight, but last summer when I was asked to emcee a cousin’s wedding I was so disappointed when I tried on my tuxedo and it was too tight. And when the pictures came back from the wedding I looked very obese. I didn’t like what I saw—I didn’t look good and I didn’t look healthy. So I took a four-week leave from work and focused on withdrawing from all junk food. Sugar had become a crutch, and it was killing me. I lost 20 pounds that month and stepped up my exercise program by going to a CrossFit gym, and the endorphins make me feel great. I was nurturing my body and for the first time in my adult life I was really, really happy. The depression lifted, and I became much more confident.”
6 Reward yourself and celebrate your accomplishments “All the money I used to spend on junk food I now spend on new clothes, and it feels good! And winning the Kurt Kroesen Inspiration Award was so humbling and such an honour.”
Coaching for better health
Since 2012, the Live Well | Bien Vivre health coaching program has coaching clients one-on-one, and presented wellness programs to group participants, to help them take charge of their health for free. More than half of these clients have diabetes, while the rest live with conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and mental health issues. While the program lasts an average of eight weeks, there is no cut-off time; clients can check back in with their coach at any time.
Nine full-time health coaches cover nine regions across the province, and offer flexible meeting times and locations for their clients. They help them set and meet goals, connect them with local resources, and assist in navigating the health-care system.
“We have a nonjudgmental coaching approach—instead of telling clients what to do, we offer them options and they can choose what works for them to create an action plan,” says regional health coach Marie-Pier Page, who covers the Miramichi region and met Ward when she visited the Metepenagiag Health Centre where he works. She describes him as “a superstar” for his work in promoting wellness.
The program is making a special effort to reach out to Indigenous communities because of the high risk of diabetes in this group. “Working with Rainier and the Metepenagiag Health Centre has opened doors for us, and our next steps are to continue to build partnerships with other Indigenous communities,” says Tara Werner, community health promotion manager for Live Well | Bien Vivre. The program has connected with a number of the First Nations communities in the province, and plans to translate program materials into the Mi'kmaq language. “We know how prevalent diabetes is in Indigenous communities, especially those in rural areas—there’s a lot of potential for us to partner.”
The last word
“Through lifestyle and small changes I have been able to get myself to a place where I can finally be happy and healthy. I suffered [with] my [diabetes] and my obesity and now that I’m healing, it’s just a matter of time to get to where I’m going.” – Rainier Ward, person living with type 2 diabetes
“Rainier has overcome so much and has shown others with diabetes that it’s possible to make significant changes in their lives. We consider him an ambassador for the health coaching program.” – Tara Werner, community health promotion manager, Live Well | Bien Vivre
Did you know?
If you are looking for a free, personalized lifestyle management program that empowers you to lead a healthier life and may help reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and live in another part of the country, check out the new Canadian Diabetes Prevention Program.
(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Autumn 2018)
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