It takes more than the loss of a leg to stop Robert Baribeau.
The 48-year-old president of Cree Construction underwent surgery to remove his right leg about six inches below the knee November 21, following a bizarre series of complications after he broke his left foot early last summer.
Though he’s been in hospital since November 14, Baribeau continues to oversee Cree Construction and Development Enterprise (CCDE), the first completely owned Cree corporation founded in 1976. Now at the Jewish Rehabilitation Hospital in Laval after his initial stay and surgery at Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Montreal, he works the phones and even recently met with executives from another company to sign off on a renewal of a joint venture.
“It’s been a hell of ride,” he joked during an interview in the cafeteria of the Laval hospital.
Last June, Baribeau woke up with pain and swelling in his left foot. “It had almost doubled in size around the ankle,” he said.
Doctors at a Laval walk-in clinic suspected it was related to his diabetes – he had been diagnosed with type-2 diabetes when he was 32 – and ordered an MRI to look for blood clots. The test came back negative, so Baribeau used a tensor bandage to deal with the swelling, and continued to work and do his usual summer trips on his cherished Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“I’m a self-reliant guy. I wrapped the ankle as tight as I could and used Google as my doctor,” he said wryly.
The problem didn’t go away. It got worse. A second clinic visit led to a second MRI, which also revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Finally, on August 24, during a visit to Sacré-Coeur Hospital, examinations discovered he was suffering from Charcot Foot, in which bones that have become brittle and weakened from diabetes are easily broken or displaced. In his case, three small bones had been damaged from the two months he had walked on and tightly wrapped his injured foot.
Once the swelling was reduced Baribeau wore a plaster cast, which was soon broken because he continued to be active. After the third broken cast, physicians made him a more durable fibreglass cast.
The fibreglass, he suspects, infected his right foot.
“I would always scratch my good leg with the cast when it got itchy,” Baribeau explained. “And I noticed some of the fibres would get stuck in my skin.”
In November, during a bath just days before the cast was to be removed, he noticed his right toes had reddened and appeared inflamed. The discolouration worsened the next day, spreading and becoming darker. On November 14, he returned to the Laval walk-in clinic and was immediately dispatched to the emergency room at Sacré-Coeur Hospital.
“I had my eight-year-old daughter with me,” Baribeau recalled. “I thought I was just going to get some antibiotics and go home. I was wrong.”
Now feverish, he had to ask an adult daughter living in Sherbrooke to join him to look after her younger sibling since their mother was in Mistissini. His glucose readings were off the charts, and doctors gave him massive doses of antibiotics.
“I thought they had stopped it after a few days; the redness disappeared and I had no more fever,” he recounted. But doctors wanted results from yet another MRI scheduled for November 21.
“That same day they told me I was going in to surgery that night,” recalling his shock. “I remember the doctor telling me that he’d like me to sign a consent form giving my permission to remove more of the leg than initially planned if they find more infection once they opened me up. And I’m, like, ‘Whaddya mean?’”
Apparently, a large portion of his foot was already dead. Doctors hoped to ensure enough leg below the knee could be left for a future prosthesis.
But Robert Baribeau is someone who quickly accepts reality. “All right, let’s go, I guess I have to,” he remembers thinking.
When the Nation visited him the following day, November 22, Baribeau was already in remarkably good spirits. He credits the constant presence of his daughter Nicky – “she was there 24 hours a day” – and other friends and family members with helping his state of mind. But he also has another explanation.
“I guess I never see the dark side of things. Maybe I’m a little ignorant that way,” he said with a wink. “I don’t panic. I just try to see how to solve the problem.”
After the amputation, he received a visit from his friend and fellow amputee, former Deputy Grand Chief Paul Gull. “He walked into my room normally. It did me a lot of good, because at first I forgot he also lost a leg. After I remembered his amputation, I realized that I will also walk again.”
To that end, there is much work to do at the Jewish Rehabilitation Hospital. Baribeau has already lost a lot of weight from the upper-body exercise regime he has begun. When his left foot heals – a complicating factor in his recovery – he will begin to practice with a prosthetic leg. Doctors there are so pleased with his early work, Baribeau will soon be sent home on weekends, after more than a full month in hospital.
It’s that determination that is emblematic of the man, who worked his way up the ranks to become president of Cree Construction in 2012, taking over from William MacLeod, almost 20 years after studying as an industrial mechanic. In fact, after graduating, Baribeau applied for a job at Cree Construction but says he never even received a response. Asked if he thought then he’d ever end up running the company, he answered, “Hell no!”
Instead, he found a job at Inmet Mining Corporation. Then, in 1999, he was hired by Inmet’s human-resources department to help engage Cree employees.
Finally, in 2001, he was hired by the Cree Construction HR department and began a rapid rise up the ranks, becoming the company’s HR director after two years. In 2005, he became Director General, then was named president seven years later.
Now, a health challenge has humbled Baribeau. And he regrets not treating his diabetes condition with more care.
When he was first diagnosed with diabetes, he was overweight – “I probably weighed 360 pounds” – but he took it seriously.
“When we first learn that we have diabetes, we panic and make drastic changes to our lifestyle,” he said. Baribeau closely followed a health regime, losing weight, and religiously took his daily insulin right from the beginning.
But after a few years, he admits, he started to slip.
“As time passes we tend to take it less seriously and neglect it,” he warned. “Then, out of nowhere, this underhanded disease knocks us off our feet. I thought I was not going to be like all the others.
“The scare wore off,” he added. “I started going back to my old habits. I should have paid more attention, but you start thinking you’re bulletproof. Well, I stopped being bulletproof.”