Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Except for the diabetes, he's the picture of health

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On the surface, I don't have a lot in common with Sgt. Ernie Whelan.

Ernie is a 39-year-old Canadian Forces survival instructor in perfect physical condition who routinely puts his life on the line to teach his students how to survive extremely hostile conditions.

Whereas I'm a 54-year-old newspaper columnist who resembles a large kitchen appliance and routinely wraps an apron around his winter jacket because he enjoys grilling cheeseburgers in the backyard, even if it's snowing.


Ernie recently completed a dangerous six-day, 102-kilometre, solo cross-country ski trek across the frozen wasteland of Lake Winnipeg to raise funds for and awareness of diabetes.

Whereas I recently completed a gruelling series of stories about diabetes, including this one, because I wanted to continue receiving a paycheque.

Those minor differences aside, Ernie and I are identical in at least one respect.

We both have Type 2 diabetes, a debilitating disease which, if left untreated, could steal our eyesight, cost us a limb, lead to kidney failure, trigger a heart attack or stroke and eventually lead to premature death.

It's a club neither Ernie or I wanted to join. An explosion of Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of the disease, is fuelling a "diabetes storm" in Manitoba, threatening to overwhelm our health-care system and drag down the provincial economy.

In my case, it's not a surprise I developed Canada's fastest-growing chronic disease, in which the body doesn't produce enough insulin or is unable to use the insulin it makes. My friends refer to me as the poster boy for Type 2 diabetes.

In Ernie's case, it doesn't seem to make sense.

Type 2 diabetes is typically associated with middle-aged people who are inactive and sedentary, but Ernie, an instructor at the Survival and Aero Medical School at 17 Wing in Winnipeg, is a walking, skiing recruitment poster.

Type 2 diabetes is most often treated with diet and exercise, and yet this 5-foot-7, 165-pound former search-and-rescue technician needs daily insulin injections to control his high blood sugar and stay alive.

"It can happen to anybody at any given time," the married father of a two-year-old boy said.

"A lot of people don't realize that. They think you have to be overweight. I exercise daily, and it happened to me. It was a complete and total shock.

"You start asking God: why? Why did this happen? A part of me is hoping it'll go away, but I've learned to accept it."

That's just the kind of sneaky, insidious disease diabetes is. Type 1 used to be called juvenile-onset diabetes, but many adults get it. Type 2 was known as adult-onset diabetes, but, alarmingly, a growing number of young people and children are diagnosed.

Chris Everhardus, an endocrinology nurse and diabetes educator at St. Boniface General Hospital, said it's important for Manitobans to realize Type 2 diabetes is not a punishment inflicted on fat, lazy people.

"It's not a character flaw. It's a real disease," Everhardus explained. "Its roots are in the body's inability to produce or use insulin effectively to turn sugar into energy.

"With diabetes, you can be perfect and still have a problem because your body produces sugar and your body prevents it from using it effectively."

As a survival expert, Ernie Whelan is no stranger to extreme environments. But it took all of his skill this year to survive his solo fundraising trek, dubbed Gliding Thru Barriers, dragging a large sled packed with supplies, including his insulin, across Lake Winnipeg in a bitterly cold February.

"It wasn't physically harder than I expected, but it was definitely mentally harder than I expected," he said of his six-day journey, which began at Hecla Island Feb. 23 and ended Feb. 28 at Victoria Beach.

"You really find out who you are and what you're all about."

While he raised about $6,000 for diabetes, his real goal was to prove diabetics can accomplish anything.

"Just because you have diabetes, it doesn't mean you have to sit on the sidelines," he said. You've got to get through those barriers, and there were a lot of barriers out there on the lake."

The first barrier showed up a few hours into Day 1. "What happened was a ground storm came in and engulfed me," he recalled. "I couldn't see the shoreline. I didn't know which way was which. It was all white."

Over the next few days, his radio died and the solar panel charging his cellphones failed. Then his two stoves broke.

After briefly diverting to Gimli for repairs, Whelan returned to the lake where he battled powerful winds, loneliness and ice ridges at least two metres high.

His diabetes journey began in 2007 when he was diagnosed with Type 2.

"I came back from a leadership course in the mountains in Alberta," he said. "I was drinking lots of water and up all night peeing and feeling fatigued.

"Then I noticed digital clocks started looking fuzzy... I'm a paramedic so I grabbed a glucose meter from work and started testing my blood sugars, and they were off the charts."

His diagnosis led to an ugly fight with the Armed Forces. He was determined to keep his search and rescue job, which the military eventually allowed while he was taking diabetes pills. But when his blood sugar spiked again, and he had to start using insulin in 2009, it was time to transfer to the survival school.

"I never would have thought a Type 2 diabetic would have to take insulin," the sergeant said. "Normally those are Type 1 diabetics. I don't know why I contracted this disease. I'm living proof it can happen to anyone.

"But I'm still a productive member of society with diabetes. As long as I maintain it, I can do anything."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 J4

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