Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Focusing on diabetes in upnorth camp
The Friday dinner bell clangs and Veterans old and young come from their cabins and mosey to the lodge while ancient pine trees sway in the warm, September breeze.
Others file in from Lake Tomahawk where they’ve been fishing for trout, bass and sunfish or just staring out at the crystal blue water. Later they’ll sit on overstuffed couches underneath deer and elk trophies that hang on the walls. They’ll swap corny jokes and exaggerated stories. Then they’ll sit around a blazing-orange bonfire and tell stories a little more personal.
This isn’t just God’s country here. This has been Diane Kesler’s dream since nursing school, and she put $750 of her own money that first year to make it a reality. She’s been changing and saving lives the last five years with her weekend Diabetes Camp at Camp American Legion -- a weekend of fun, socializing and education for Veterans.
She took 29 Veterans Sept. 9 to 11 to the annual camp in the north woods of Wisconsin.
Kesler for years had her dream, but didn’t have a location.
Located three and a half hours from Milwaukee, Camp American Legion has offered free respite and refuge for battle-weary Veterans since 1925, and continues that mission today with a series of special camps, or just a week away for those who need it most. It provides cabins, bedding, all meals and recreation.
“I found out about this place when a Vet needed a camp physical to come up here,” Kesler said. “I contacted Kevin (the camp director), and learned all about his desires to help people with post-traumatic stress get on with their lives.”
“What do you think about a Diabetes Camp?” she asked him.
“His sister died from complications from diabetes, so he knew the need. Diabetes can be genetic, and my husband and I both have diabetes in our family, so this is personal.”
Now one weekend a year, Veterans – mostly from the Appleton area where Kesler works – board a bus to spend three days here and learn how to manage their disease.
Diabetes Camp starts as the bus pulls away from the Appleton Clinic early Friday as Veterans, nurses and other staff have icebreakers and talk about reading food labels. They get to camp in time to play on the lake, relax and learn about portion control with each meal. The rest of the weekend is one part socializing, with events like fishing, tai chi and soap making; and another part saving lives, with lessons on how to follow a diabetes map, read and control blood sugars and make good decisions.
Veteran Steve Biever, who has attended all five years, said it beats the alternative.
“People without diabetes, they think this is easy to manage, but it’s a silent killer,” he said. “It affects every cell in your body from the top of your hair to the bottom of the skin on your feet. And you either learn to live with it, or it silently kills you, bit by bit.”
That, Kesler said, is what inspires her.
“We are teaching people if they eat right and exercise, that life is worth living,” she said.
Because she and other nurses and staff all volunteer their time, they decided to make it a three-day event. But there was still the small matter of getting folks from Point A to Point B that first year.
Kesler put up $750 of her own money as a down payment on the bus, then got some veteran organizations to match it.
“That’s just who she is,” Heinen said. “She’s a good Christian and for her, this is part of her serving and helping others.”
While there were only 14 veterans that first year, word of mouth has caused the group to grow to as many as 40.
“It’s scary when you first get that diagnosis,” said Veteran Steve Leonard, who was making his first trip to Diabetes Camp. “My wife has had it for two years and she’s on insulin. So I said, ‘I got it, what am I going to do about it?’ Plus, my wife wanted me out of the house and it was free, so you can’t go wrong with that.
“I eat good, but I eat too much,” he said. “I’m still learning stuff. Biggest thing is I didn’t realize the amount of carbs I was eating and why I can’t do that.”
For a more complete look at Camp American Legion, click here.
That’s one reason why there aren’t necessarily any diet restrictions at camp. Each meal might have potatoes, white bread and other carbs, since the meals are prepared for the entire camp, not just those at Diabetes Camp. Kesler and Heinen said it’s up to the Veterans to make wise decisions and proper serving sizes, but they must learn that.
Heinen said one Veteran asked if he could bring his wife so she could learn how to cook.
“We told him, ‘No, it’s for you, since you need to know how to cook and how to eat. She’s not eating for you, and she’s not exercising for you. If you aren’t willing to do that, then there is not much we can do, because this is a self-managed disease.’”
Veteran Steve Kaiser said learning about portion control has been key.
“It helped me realize, you can still have a steak, but it needs to fit in the palm of your hand,” he said. “You can’t just eat T-bone steaks.”
“It’s the carbs you have to worry about,” Veteran Dan Varo added. “You can have all the meat you want. It’s the carbs that can hurt you. Course, if you eat nothing but meat, you have to worry about a heart attack, so there are both sides. That’s why you need to learn about the diet and exercising.”
Heinen said when she hears Veterans talk like that, she knows they are making a difference. She said Diabetes Camp gives her and other nurses the chance to do what they’d love to do every day, but don’t get the chance.
“I worked as an (intensive care) nurse, and when you do that, you don’t always have time to educate every veteran. There are tubes and things that need to be cleaned and you are constantly taking care of the day-to-day, but there was always a drive to do something more.
“Being a critical care nurse, we see people at their worst. What keeps me loving this job is when we see people who are seeking wellness. They are looking for ways to be better,” she added.
Later that night, the crew sits around the bonfire and questions about diabetes care get deep, complicated and serious. They talk about successes and setbacks, the best time to take medicine, and how to roll the injector pen with their fingers to make sure the insulin is evenly distributed.
But there are some lighthearted moments, too.
"I’ve heard cinnamon capsules help lower blood sugar,” one veteran says.
“If you do that, you’ll just end up with expensive pee,” said Carol Cole, one of the nurses who volunteers her time. “If you find cinnamon works, you’re better off sprinkling it on your oatmeal. But remember, just because cinnamon helps a little, doesn’t mean you can go off your meds.”
For a deeper look at this Diabetes Camp success story, Steve Biever, click here.
Someone throws another log on the fire. More Veterans tell their stories and open up more about their health struggles.
But it’s not all diabetes talk and no play.
“We don’t just talk about diabetes,” Heinen said. “I sometimes feel like a marriage counselor. I’ve had conversations about prostrates and we tell a lot of jokes. They start to tell the dirty jokes around the fire after I go to bed. I try not to talk politics, but even that comes up. I think besides what they learn, the camp provides a holistic part of their healing.”
The hope is they will learn from each other here and they’ll come back again next year.
“The thing I like the most,” Varo said, “is the camaraderie. I learn something each time I’m here, but after you go home, you hit that 9-, 10-, 11-month point, and you start to slip a little bit.
“Then I come up here,” he said, “and it gets me right back on track.”
For more information on Diabetes Camp, call Kesler 920-831-0070, ext. 47995. To fill out an application for the camp, or any other stays at Camp American Legion, go to: www.wilegion.org/page/content/services/camp-american-legion . For information on donating to Camp American Legion or Diabetes Camp, call 608-745-1090.