Abel Happyjack's life changed radically when he started needing dialysis in 2012.
An avid hunter, Happyjack went from spending weeks at a time in the bush to spending nine hours every second day driving to and from the clinic and getting treatment.
"It's a life changing thing for him," said his son, Marcel Happyjack, who is now the chief of the James Bay Cree community of Waswanipi. "He spent most of his time hunting. It takes so much away."
Soon there could be new hope for patients like Abel Happyjack. The Cree Board of Health and Social Services is launching a home hemodialysis pilot project in collaboration with the Cree Nation of Waswanipi.
Beginning in October, five dialysis patients from Waswanipi will begin being trained on the portable dialysis machine designed for home use.
"Home dialysis stands to offer a profound benefit to our people," said Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson of the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay at an official launch Thursday in Waswanipi.
Right now only two Cree communities offer hemodialysis, meaning patients must travel or live away from their families, sometimes for years, to get treatment in either Chisasibi, Chibougamau or Montreal.
Keeping families together
"It would keep families together instead of having them far away from the daily support of loved ones," said Petawabano.
Sixty eight Cree patients are currently receiving dialysis as many wait for a compatible kidney transplant. Those numbers are expected to rise as about one in four Quebec Cree older than 20 have Type 2 diabetes.
"I've described this as a health care time bomb," said Petawabano, adding that home hemodialysis has great potential for remote, northern communities lacking treatment options.
The home hemodialysis machine is small enough to fit into an overhead compartment of a plane and easy to use, according to Dr. François Charette, the director of medical affairs and services at the CBHSSJB.
"It's a relatively simple device, that's what has changed the whole story," said Charette, adding it gives patients freedom to get their hemodialysis when they want, including while they sleep.
"If you do it at night, you can actually keep a job and be part of the community," said Charette.
Home hemodialysis is not going to be an option for every patient, according to the CBHSSJB, but Petawabano says there is enormous potential to offer it in other communities if the pilot project is a success.
With the cost of the unit in the $30,000 or $40,000 dollar range, home hemodialysis also has the potential of greatly reducing health care costs for the Cree health board, as it could significantly reduce the need for travel every few days for each patient, explained Charette.
The project has been in the works for more than two years and Waswanipi was chosen, in part, because of its access to a clean water source and reliable power, key requirements of home hemodialysis.