NNSL Photo/Graphic

Home page text size buttonsbigger textsmall textText size
Amputee warns of diabetes complications
Don Hjelmeland is building a prosthetic limb to get moving after losing leg

Elaine Anselmi
Northern News Services
Friday, April 22, 2016

The top half of a mannequin wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt sits in the corner of Don Hjelmeland's living room. Some walls are painted with a faux-brick design, others with murals and photographs printed off on white paper.

NNSL photo/graphic

Don Hjelmeland is using the leg of a mannequin he collected from the dump a decade ago to build his own prosthetic, after his left leg was amputated due to an infection complicated by his diabetes. - Elaine Anselmi/NNSL photo

Hjelmeland sits in the corner with his left denim pant leg rolled up to the knee and the mannequin's leg, topped with a wool sock attached by red industrial tape, protruding below it.

"At the end of December I had my leg cut off (just below the knee) because I'm diabetic and my toe got infected," Hjelmeland said. "I've been at home since I got out of the hospital in January - I haven't been out much at all. I'm working on making my own leg."

Hjelmeland has worked in trades most of his life - for many years on mobile homes and on various projects around town. He laughs that people took to calling him Papa Smurf because one project he worked on involved dry-walling and then unloading 51 gallons of blue paint on the Black Knight pub's walls. Another nickname he came by was Santa because of his long white beard and hair, which he's since trimmed back.

He's also an artist, as evidenced by his apartment.

His latest project is to fabricate a prosthetic from the mannequin he collected from the dump more than a decade ago.

"I don't feel like spending six weeks down in Edmonton, and in the old days, they used to make their own anyway," Hjelmeland says holding up the beginnings of his project.

Right now, the fiberglass and plastic calf is sawed off at the foot and the knee and Hjelmeland is still working on affixing straps of some sort to attach it to his thigh.

Once he figures the right fit and size, Hjelmeland says he'll be walking away.

While he proudly displays his prosthetic project, as well as artwork and various elements of the apartment he's reconfigured, Hjelmeland has a more thoughtful reason for sharing his story.

Hjelmeland has been living with Type 2 diabetes for 25 years. The infection in his toe was the second in his feet over the past year - although the first was cured with antibiotics. He admits to being less scrupulous about taking his prescribed medications than he should have been, and says lifestyle choices you make when you're young can have a major impact when you're older.

"You can never even think of losing a body part and then it happens," he said.

Nearly everybody with diabetes has Type 2, which means their cells don't use the hormone insulin properly, causing sugar to build up in the blood. Five to 10 per cent have Type 1, which mostly develops in childhood and means the body produces no insulin.

In the Northwest Territories, there were 2,582 cases of diabetes in 2014, up from 1,767 in 2013. The 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey suggests diets lacking in fruits and vegetables and insufficient physical activity were leading to increased rates of Type 2 diabetes in the territory. Symptoms may include being very thirsty, peeing a lot, blurry vision and being irritable.

"Diabetes is the leading cause of non-traumatic lower limb amputation in Canadian adults," said Scott McRae, regional director for Alberta and Northwest Territories at the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) in an e-mailed statement. "Compared to the general population, Canadian adults with diabetes are over 20 times more likely to undergo non-traumatic lower limb amputations, 85 per cent of which are preceded by a foot ulcer."

One of the association's major campaigns is around foot health - promoting regular examinations to catch any issues early on.

"The (CDA) recommends that people with diabetes check their feet daily for cuts, cracks, bruises, blisters, sores, infection, and unusual marking and, to call their health-care provider if any changes are detected," McRae stated.

Despite warnings, he continued that Statistics Canada found about 30 per cent of people with diabetes do not perform regular foot checks.

As well as foot health, Hjelmeland is adamant about sharing a lesson in overall health for the younger generation.

"You've got to learn young so you don't get it to start with - being diabetic," he said.

"That's not always easy, depending on your families and what they can afford and that."

Now coming to terms with his new lifestyle, Hjelmeland says he doesn't go out very much but he isn't too bothered by it.

"I've learned to bake cookies from my own recipes," he said.

He's adapted to life with one leg, making certain necessary tweaks.

Living on the second floor of an apartment building without a working door buzzer, he tosses the key out his kitchen window for guests coming in and keeps a bright orange rope next to the window that he lowers down with a basket for any deliveries.

It works for him and he stays busy with his art projects - for now.

"I used to be active and that but I'm just temporarily on hold," he says. "That's the way I see it."

E-mailWe welcome your opinions. Click here to e-mail a letter to the editor.