Kidney disease during COVID like going to Hellnback

Cree rapper, family, struggling after near-total renal failure


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Karmen Omeasoo didn’t feel sick until the night he couldn’t breathe.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2021 (740 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Karmen Omeasoo didn’t feel sick until the night he couldn’t breathe.

Sure, late-night nausea had become a regular occurrence for the Samson Cree Nation-born, Winnipeg-based rapper — who performs as Hellnback — and he was prone to falling asleep while company was over, sometimes mid-conversation. But, as a busy musician who was often in the studio until the wee hours, it was easy to chalk those symptoms up to lifestyle.

“I thought it was just maybe I was eating too much fried food on the road or something like that,” Omeasoo says over the phone. “My lifestyle was the dangerous part, (it) was tearing my health at the edges.”

He was diagnosed with Stage 5 chronic kidney disease — which is the near or total failure of kidney functioning — in the summer of 2019. Omeasoo, 41, has lived with Type 2 diabetes since he was 19 years old; while he admits he’s never managed the disease particularly well, he was making some positive changes.

“This is my sixth year being sober, this is probably my 12th year sober from hard drugs,” he says. “I thought I was on the right path, you know? I was quitting everything and starting working out, but the damage was already done. And with kidneys, it’s irreversible.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Omeasoo was more than 500 kilometres from Winnipeg in Pimicikamak Cree Nation, also known as Cross Lake, visiting in-laws with his kids and wife, Lisa Muswagon. They had just returned from a family camp-out when he started having trouble catching his breath. With the nearest hospital several hours’ drive away in Thompson, the family rushed to the local nursing station, where Omeasoo’s test results surprised everyone.

“They were shocked, they were like, ‘How are you walking?… Your numbers are off the charts,’” he says of the health centre staff. “I had already lost 80 per cent of my (kidney) function and I had no clue.”

Shock quickly turned into fear for the future.

“When you get married and find your partner, you plan the rest of your life, but when this happens and you don’t understand the disease, it feels like your time is limited,” Muswagon, 40, says. “It’s like the stopwatch goes on.”

The couple met through the Indigenous music scene and have been together since 2002. Muswagon, who is also a recording artist, was attending university and pregnant with their youngest daughter when Omeasoo was diagnosed with kidney disease. She’s put her life and career aspirations on hold to care for her husband and their six kids.

“Things got really hard for my own mental health as a caregiver,” Muswagon says. “It got to the point where I just couldn’t go a day, an hour, without crying.”

Everything, from the terminology to the treatment, has been overwhelming.

Omeasoo is currently on the kidney transplant registry and is gearing up for a long wait because of his blood type (those with type O blood can only receive a kidney from a like donor, while other blood types can be cross-compatible). A family member had stepped up to donate, but was ruled out last month for health reasons.

In the meantime, Omeasoo is visiting a local clinic several times a week for hemodialysis, but it’s taken more than a year and several health scares to find the right treatment method. The pandemic has added a new layer of challenges.

“Life would have been so much easier,” Muswagon says. “The kids would have been at daycare… at school, I wouldn’t have to be teaching them, I could have gotten into a job and Karmen could be at home healing. We could’ve had respite, we could’ve had all the support that was out there.”

At times, Muswagon says it feels like she’s “sitting in the middle of Portage and Main trying to meditate,” with responsibilities coming at her from all directions. Things have got better recently thanks to a combination of faith, therapy and research into all things renal.

“I can either be scared and run away or I’m going to face this head on, learn about it and learn how to manage it and make this freakin’ kidney disease our bitch,” she says with a tired laugh.

The couple has been sharing their health journey on social media to raise awareness about kidney disease and diabetes, both of which have a high prevalence among Indigenous communities. Fans have responded with an outpouring of financial support and well-wishes.

Omeasoo hopes his story will resonate with other diabetes sufferers.

“Listen to the doctors… it was insanely hard for me to stop eating salty foods and sugary snacks and all this and that, but I had to put it in my head that if I didn’t I’m gonna die,” he says. “As much as it hurts, it hurts a lot more if you can’t feel that pain.”

While illness and the pandemic have put touring on hold, Omeasoo hasn’t stopped making music or hustling for his art. He released four songs in 2020, including a track called Everything, which is dedicated to his family; and has put out a line of “Kidney Warrior” merch.

He’s looking forward to getting back on stage one way or another, with his No. 1 fan by his side.

“Me and my wife are very, very resourceful,” he says. “If someone closes a door, we’re gonna run through a window.”

Twitter: @evawasney

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Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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