Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's hard to be healthy when you're poor

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My uncle Kenny called me one evening to borrow some aspirin -- but not the regular kind.

"The blue ones," he said. "The 81-milligram ones."

In the last year or two my uncle's health has declined. He's had diabetes, a slight stroke and heart disease.

My auntie Jeannie, his wife, had a heart attack a few years ago, and also struggles with heart disease, osteoporosis and arthritis. It's worrisome, since they're both only in their 50s.

My uncle Kenny and I talked for a few minutes before I realized he wasn't feeling good. He said he felt dizzy.

I told him he should go see a doctor in case he was going to have a heart attack or something. My partner would give him a ride to the hospital.

But he didn't want to go to an emergency room so late at night. He said if he started feeling worse he would call an ambulance.

I did a little scrambling and was able to get Uncle Kenny a bottle of the aspirins he needed. They cost about $6, but they might as well have been $100 since my uncle was broke.

Imagine that -- $6 could have cost a trip to the hospital or his life.

It's too bad diseases like the ones my uncle and aunt have are so common among aboriginal people -- especially when they are often preventable.

When you live up north it has a lot to do with lack of access and high cost of healthy foods. When you live in the city it's not as bad, but still difficult to eat healthy foods.

The biggest problem is a lack of education about healthy foods and because of it there are growing health woes in many of our communities. Unhealthy food and not enough exercise are making many of us sick.

The worst part is we are passing these unhealthy eating habits on to our kids. Unhealthy food is popular in Indian country -- just look at the sacred fry bread. That means some of our kids will be getting the same diseases and perhaps dying young.

Healthy foods aren't always more expensive than unhealthy ones. People need to learn the tricks to saving money and preparing healthy food.

Granted, it's hard to teach your elders how to eat right. Elders need to break decades-old bad habits and follow your advice when you aren't around.

Uncle Kenny is dealing with two problems: he can't afford healthy foods, and he can't afford the pills that help keep him healthy, either.

Some people think First Nations people with treaty status have amazing medical coverage, but it isn't true.

There are many medications and treatments that Indian Affairs doesn't cover -- Plavix, for example, which my uncle needs for his heart condition.

They said he could file a dispute to get the pills covered, but when you only have a few years of residential school those bureaucratic forms are intimidating. So, what does he do?

My uncle just learned he has qualified for disability payments, but between my auntie's stretched work income and their limited medical coverage they always come up short on medication for the month.

So he and my aunt share some pills. She has a prescription for pills and she pays for them, but gets a discount thanks to her Pharmacare plan. They try to "save pills" by skipping a few doses here and there to make their medication last until the next payday.

Shouldn't good health care be available to every Canadian equally -- from new Canadians right down to aboriginal people?

I wonder how many other people -- First Nations or not -- are in the same boat.


Colleen Simard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 A16

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