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Health ᒥᔪᐱᒫᑎᓰᐧᐃᓐ

Hemodialysis pilot project launches in Waswanipi

BY Dan Isaac Sep 27, 2019

A seven-hour trip, three times a week to receive treatments in Chibougamau is the reality for dialysis patients living in Waswanipi, but a new home hemodialysis pilot project, launching in October, is looking to change all that.

“It would be like asking my Montreal patients to go to Ottawa or Toronto to get dialyzed,” explained Dr. Murray Vasilevsky, Director of the Cree Renal Program. “It’s far, and they get uprooted from their jobs and family, and it’s not home. It’s important to make dialysis more accessible to patients in their own communities.”

Currently, there are 68 people in need of dialysis treatments in Eeyou Istchee. Of those, 16 live in Waswanipi; five of whom have been selected to participate in the pilot project.

Dr. Vasilevsky admits that there will be some anxiety that comes with patients administering their own dialysis treatments for the first time. But he notes that the benefits far outweigh the risks – especially with the prevalence of diabetes in Cree communities.

Since 1983, there’s been a 10-fold increase of diabetes in Eeyou Istchee, noted Bella Petawabano, Chair of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services James Bay (CBHSSJB). 

According to the 2017 report from the Cree Diabetes Information System, 2,932 Eeyou Cree (26.7%) suffer from diabetes – kidney disease is a common complication of both type one and two diabetes.

For the CBHSSJB, diabetes prevention remains a top priority, but the sheer volume of diabetes patients validates the project and its potential expansion.

“Many of our people will have serious complications from diabetes in the coming years,” Petawabano told the Nation. “We needed to find ways to support them. One way of doing that is home dialysis.”

She also acknowledged that it took time and strong community collaboration to get to this point. The project had been in the works for the past two years and came out of the CBHSSJB’s strategic regional plan.

“It’s been a priority of our council to work in close collaboration with the Health Board,” echoed Waswanipi Chief Marcel Happyjack. “I’m happy for the families who will benefit from this project.”

If all goes well, the CBHSSJB will offer the service in all the Cree communities. For Vasilevsky, however, the project is already a slam-dunk.

“Even though it’s important to realize that not every patient can do home hemodialysis, I expect this is something we will be expanding in any community that has a qualified patient,” he promised. “Everything is always possible, and when there are obstacles, you just need to find ways around them.”

The five patients selected from Waswanipi will soon travel to Montreal to receive training on their new hemodialysis units.

The home units work a bit differently than the ones they’re accustomed to in Chibougamau. The patients will need to dialyze five times a week instead of three but for shorter periods of time and will be able to do so from the comfort of their home, surrounded by family.

“I’m really excited about this project,” exclaimed Petawabano. “I look forward to that day when every Cree hunter, trapper or fishermen can continue practicing their traditional activities whether or not they need dialysis.”

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.