Early in her career as a dietitian, Karen Omichinski learned a big lesson from her own family about what motivates people with diabetes to change their eating habits and lifestyle. Her mother, Evelyn, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in her 50s, while Omichinski was pregnant with twins, now 29.
People will only change if they can see the reason for change and how it will benefit them. They need to believe it’s worth putting in the time and effort
says Omichinski, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority in Beausejour, Man., and a long-time volunteer with Diabetes Canada.
“My mom wanted to be here for her grandchildren for a long time,” says Omichinski. So Evelyn attended diabetes education sessions, became more aware of what she ate, carefully monitored her blood sugar (glucose) levels, took her prescribed medications, worked with her health-care team, and stayed fit through walking, bowling, and resistance band exercises. “Mom’s now well into her 80s, living in her own home, and keeps in touch with family and friends through email, Facetime and, of course, going for coffee.”
Educating and advocating for change
Omichinski has volunteered with Diabetes Canada (formerly the Canadian Diabetes Association) for more than 20 years. She started by hosting education sessions and speaking to groups in smaller rural communities across Manitoba to raise awareness. “I got involved because of the Canadian Diabetes Association’s commitment to bring education and information to rural communities, which sometimes get missed,” she says.
Omichinski also enjoyed sharing her nutrition know-how in the kitchen at summer D-camps in Manitoba. “I helped the cooks figure out what the kids need to eat. It was very satisfying to see young people with type 1 diabetes become more self-confident and competent in self-care,” she says.
She eventually took on a leadership role, serving as volunteer regional chair for the Manitoba and Nunavut Region from 2010-2014, and has also been an active member of Diabetes Canada’s Manitoba Advocacy Committee since 2009. During her time, the committee’s work resulted in the Manitoba government providing insulin pump coverage for children and youth with type 1 diabetes.
Omichinski received a Diabetes Canada National Volunteer of the Year award in 2018 and a Regional Volunteer of the Year award in 2013. “Karen is a very compassionate person and dedicated volunteer, who has a passion for making a difference and embracing change,” says Andrea Kwasnicki, Diabetes Canada’s regional director for Manitoba and Nunavut, who nominated Omichinski for the award.
“She’s travelled throughout the province, representing Diabetes Canada in countless speaking engagements,” says Kwasnicki. “She has the gift of making complex, difficult topics easy to understand, and her soft-spoken, personable demeanour is welcoming and comforting for people struggling with managing diabetes or newly diagnosed.”
Listening, learning, and motivating
Whether Omichinski is speaking to a group of people at a Diabetes Canada event or talking with one individual, she connects in a way that leads to practical solutions. “I look at the whole person. What do they hope to see in their life, and how can they feel better? I help the person figure out what would be the easiest change to make first. The goal needs to be achievable and they can then build on success,” she says.
Growing up in rural Manitoba as a youth in 4-H club, Omichinski learned how to lead and lend a hand from the home economists who ran the program. “Volunteering is rewarding because I get to meet, help, and learn from so many different people whom I wouldn’t know otherwise, and I have fun doing it,” she says.
Managing your diet
Here are two tips from Karen Omichinski to help you eat healthy and reduce the risk of diabetes complications:
1 “Eat mindfully. Listen to your body and eat when you are physically hungry. Be aware of emotions, like stress, that may tempt you to eat when you’re not hungry.”
2 “Cook at home as much as you can. It helps you to choose foods that are healthy. Keep things simple by using the plate method from Canada’s Food Guide.”
Did you know?
Volunteering with Diabetes Canada gives you a chance to make a difference in the lives of Canadians affected by diabetes. Visit Volunteer With Us to learn more about rewarding opportunities that can be matched to your skills, interests, and availability.
Do you know someone who you think is a Diabetes Champion? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article appeared in Diabetes Dialogue, Winter 2020)
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