Not all minorities are visible

Cpl Spencer Holmes, Aviation Systems Technician, 1 AMS, 4 Wing Cold Lake

On November 11th, 2015, I woke up like any other Remembrance Day, with a somber mood and the Remembrance Day ceremony in my mind. My wife prepared breakfast, and we enjoyed our meal while reflecting on the day’s events after the ceremony. The day carried on as it usually would, myself getting dressed in my DEU’s and proceeding to Cold Lakes Energy Centre. It was not until that point that I started to get a slight pain in my abdomen. As the Remembrance Day ceremony carried on, the pain only worsened, a severe stomach ache, followed by dizziness and sweating. It was a struggle saluting through O-Canada and not rushing to the washroom during the 2 minutes of silence. Once the ceremony had been completed, my wife and I left as soon as possible. Once home, I laid down, pale and sweating; I slept for 12 hours.

The next day, I felt fine, a slight heartburn sensation but okay, but my wife insisted I get myself checked out. I checked into sick parade on the 12th of November, where I explained my symptoms to the med tech. I mentioned that I was drinking a significant amount of water over the past month or so, subsequently dehydrating myself soon after, and I was having leg cramps in the night. The med-tech got me a prescription for the heartburn and decided to get blood work done, just to be safe; I was then sent on my way. I had no sooner settled back into work in my unit at AETE when I received a call. It was the MIR, and they needed to see me immediately to double-check my bloodwork, not a good sign.

It was on this day that three medical personnel, after double checking my blood work, walked in and informed me that I was diabetic, and my blood sugar levels, which should typically be around 5mmol/L, was 36mmol/L. I did not immediately appreciate the severity and future consequences of this diagnosis. At a sugar level of 36, the medical personnel were expecting me to slip into a coma at any moment, there was a discussion to medevac me to Edmonton, but in the end, I was put into an ambulance and driven through the night to Edmonton’s University of Alberta hospital (U of A).

I ended up staying at the U of A hospital for several days, and over the weekend, I learned that I was a type 1 diabetic and I required insulin to live, so I began multiple insulin injections a day along with education on what being a diabetic means. I had a few visitors, my wife and my older sister, who had flown out from BC, and they stayed at Valour Place while I was in the hospital. I also received a visit from my unit CO, Col Barker; it was a pleasant visit, although I was admittedly nervous. I had thought to myself how much of a bother I was, and now here, a Colonel was taking the time to see how I was doing. After talking for a bit, I mustered up the courage to ask Col Barker, “Sir, what is going to happen to me now? Will I still be able to serve in the military?” I knew, judging by the long pause, and the careful selection of words Col Barker used, that I could still be retained, [for a max of three years] that the paperwork can take years to process, and ending with, we will see how things play out. My career was over.

As a new type 1 diabetic, I had a big learning curve moving forward. Commonly type 1 diabetes develops during youth, yet I have since learned that type 1 is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas that produce insulin and can inflict anyone, at any age. I learned more than I ever cared for regarding the sugars and carbohydrates in foods. Diet drinks and low carb foods became my friends. I had to limit the foods I loved, such as ice cream, sushi, poutines, bread etc. I had to monitor my blood sugars constantly; if my blood sugar dropped, I risked hypoglycemia, collapsing, and falling into a coma; if my blood sugar was high for long periods, hyperglycemia, I can develop health complications such as kidney failure, neuropathy, damage to the blood vessels of the retina, and cataracts. A constant juggling of my blood sugars every day of my life moving forward. People with diabetes are also known to have a heightened risk of developing depression, and I have had my highs and lows learning to cope with diabetes, pardon the pun.

I tell you my story, not to feel bad for me, not to complain about how bad I have got it. I know there are far worse off situations in life. I tell my story to bring awareness to debilitating diseases and disabilities; I am Cold Lake’s Military Co-Chair for the Defence Advisory Group for Persons with Disabilities (DAGPWD). The United Nations has recognized December 3rd as the International day for persons with disabilities, and the 2020s theme is to bring awareness to “Not All Disabilities Are Visible.”

Cold Lake’s DAGPWD group goals are to brings awareness to any disability, visible or not, and address on your behalf any barriers or inequalities encountered in the workplace. I am looking to expand our membership and hope that others will reach out. You do not have to have a disability yourself or be military, only a desire to promote employment equity in the workplace.

I can be reached at spencer.holmes@forces.gc.ca or by phone at 780-840-8000 ext 4147 or 7903.