Nov. 29, 2023

UCalgary and community co-researchers tackle stigma of diabetes in homeless population

Calgary-based production brings lived experiences of diabetes to the screen
LOW is a Calgary based production, created by UCalgary researchers with the help of community co-researchers.
LOW is a Calgary-based production telling true stories of people with diabetes who experience homelessness. Pluto Pictures

Lights, camera, action…

Confused and disoriented, Bobby stumbles into the men’s washroom at a shelter where he’s spending the night. Desperate and dizzy, the middle-aged man reaches for a tap and a sip of water. Before getting to the tap, his sugar-starved body shuts down and drops to the floor, falling into a potentially life-threatening coma.

Bobby wakes up in the hospital, tubes connected to monitors and an IV line. He learns he has had a seizure due to dangerously low blood sugar levels. He was found by a shelter worker who called 9-1-1 after mistakenly administering Narcan for what she thought was a drug overdose.

Bobby is a fictional character in LOW, a short film produced by local filmmaker Pluto Pictures. But the story is painfully real for one in 10 people who are experiencing homelessness.   

“Bobby’s story is our stories combined,” says Justin Lawson, member of the Calgary Diabetes Advocacy Committee (CDAC). “It definitely hits close to home for me, because I have diabetes and I have been homeless. I think it is very accurate.”

LOW is the passion project of the Calgary Diabetes Advocacy Committee (CDAC). Led by Dr. David Campbell, MD, PhD, the research group is made up of University of Calgary research staff and community-based co-researchers, who have lived experience with diabetes and homelessness. These community-based researchers have a unique perspective as they have experienced diabetes and homelessness.

CDAC has worked together for several years, setting research priorities and tackling community challenges.

It uses what’s known as participatory action research, a qualitative research approach that involves researchers and participants collaborating to understand social issues and taking action to bring about change.

Hope that education will reduce stigma

In the spring of 2022, the group took on the challenge of educating the public and workers in the homeless-serving sector about diabetes, to reduce the stigma people like Bobby experience. Participants in the research collaborative wrote and performed in a theatre production before tackling LOW.

“I am so happy with how it turned out. It’s very professional,” says Anna Whaley, a member of CDAC. “The reason I am part of this group is that I want to be a person that is helping others. I think this film will do that.”

Managing blood sugars can be complicated. Patients must consume nutritious foods in the correct amounts, measure and monitor blood sugars throughout the day and have access to insulin and other medications to keep their blood sugars within a healthy range. Failing to do so can cause serious problems and even lead to coma, seizure and death.

While experiencing homelessness in the past, both Lawson and Whaley have been hospitalized with dangerously high and low blood sugars.

Prolonged high blood sugars can lead to serious health concerns down the road, such as amputation, blindness, heart disease and kidney failure.

Homelessness further complicates the challenges of diabetes management.

“When you are facing homelessness, often you are forced to put your diabetes on the back burner,” says Campbell, an associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“You are worried about finding a safe place to sleep and food to eat. But people with diabetes who have had an experience of homelessness in their lifetime are up to five times more likely to suffer future complications, like amputation.”

David Campbell, led the research group made up of UCalgary research staff and community-based co-researchers, who have lived experience with diabetes and homelessness.

David Campbell, led the research group made up of UCalgary research staff and community-based co-researchers, who have lived experience with diabetes and homelessness.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

CDAC is optimistic that LOW will educate shelter staff, health-care workers, and the public about diabetes and its symptoms, ultimately improving circumstances for Calgarians facing homelessness and diabetes.

“I hope that when the shelter staff see the film, they take diabetes more seriously,” says Whaley. “I hope it makes everyone think more than they did before.”

These individuals are vulnerable to judgment and stigma because their symptoms may mirror those of people with substance abuse disorders. Campbell is also excited about the film’s potential impact.

“I am thrilled,” says Campbell. “It has turned out even better than I thought it could be. Our goal was to do a project that leads to some kind of change in the world and improves someone’s life. I think this film will be really impactful.” 

The first public screening of LOW is being held at the Plaza Theatre on Thursday, Dec. 7 as part of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Science in the Cinema series. Register to attend

David Campbell is an associate professor in the departments of Medicine, Community Health Sciences and Cardiac Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

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