Dave Brekke had been married less than a year when he tried to increase his life insurance.
He was refused, and told that his life expectancy was only 10 years.
That was in 1961.
Brekke is still very much alive—a fit and active 73-year-old with a passion for sports and a dream of overhauling the Yukon’s voting system.
He’s also the proud owner of a medal from the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard University that reads, “Triumph for Man and Medicine/For 50 Courageous Years with Diabetes.”
Brekke was a new teacher in the small central Alberta town of Rimbey when he first learned he had Type 1 diabetes, that his pancreas didn’t produce the insulin his body needed to convert sugar and starches into energy.
He would need regular injections of insulin to stay alive.
His first reaction was denial. After all, his doctor was decreasing his insulin dosage, and for a few weeks he was taking no insulin at all, and no sugar was “spilling” into his urine.
As a physical education teacher who liked to warm up with all his classes, he appeared to be burning enough energy to keep his blood sugar levels normal.
Convinced he wasn’t diabetic at all, Brekke spent exam week that spring sharing the treats his fellow teachers brought in as “marking fuel” and missing his regular warm-ups because the gym being used by students writing their exams.
By week’s end, he found himself short of energy and not wanting to exercise.
On Monday, he went blind.
“I had gone to school and had my classes. I didn’t warm up with them, but they were going around and I got to the point where I couldn’t see them.”
He could see light, but not what he was looking at.
“I don’t remember what was going through my head, but I sure didn’t appreciate being blind.”
His “white blindness” was caused by sugar crystals in his eyes.
It took hourly injections of insulin for a couple of days in Edmonton’s University Hospital before he could see again.
That episode forced him to accept that he really was diabetic and would be need insulin injections for the rest of his life.
After finishing his education degree in 1965, Brekke was set to return to Rimbey.
“At that time, you could buy a farm for $10,000, with a house on it. I thought I could buy it with teaching, and rent the property. Irene said, ‘Gosh, if we do that, we’ll be stuck there for their rest of our life.'”
Both Yukon and the Northwest Territories needed teachers, so Brekke applied to both jurisdictions. The first offer came from Yukon, for an elementary position in Whitehorse that included a lot of physed, so the couple moved north. Within a year, two jobs were available in Old Crow, one as a teacher, the other as principal.
“I was told that I couldn’t have the teaching job because someone else had applied for it twice before, but if I went as principal I could go,” Brekke recalls with a laugh.
After two years of full-time teaching as well as all the administrative and secretarial duties, Brekkereturned to Whitehorse as principal of Takhini Elementary.
Except for an exchange year in Victoria, B.C., he continued teaching in the city until he retired in 1994 as a counsellor at Jack Hulland Elementary.
But being a “brittle” diabetic—prone to rapid swings from high glucose levels to dangerously high insulin levels—presented many challenges, in both his personal and professional life.
“I remember once when I was teaching Grade 8, and I had a math class. I was trying to work out this problem—I’m sure it was a matter of adding two and two, but I couldn’t do it,” he says.
A knock on the door announcing that the buses were leaving made him realize what was happening.
“I was stoned there, on insulin.”
Brekke credits his wife, Irene, with saving his life on many occasions when he was experiencing insulin shock. The Harvard medal, he has said, really should belong to her.
After retiring from the school system, Brekke went on to serve 10 years as Elections Canada’s returning officer for Yukon.
“I’d never really been political at all. My Dad wasn’t political. He suggested, ‘Just stay out of politics.’ So I never did have much interest in it at all.”
While his work with Elections Canada was about the voting process, not about partisan politics, it was during his last year there that he formed the strong belief that Canada’s “first past the post” electoral system was seriously flawed.
Since his resignation from Elections Canada immediately after the 2006 general election, he has spent countless hours of volunteer time working with people from across the political spectrum to try to bring about change.
All the while, he has continued taking several units of insulin daily, checking his blood levels at frequent intervals, eating carefully-measured meals and snacks at the same time each day, and getting lots of exercise, by taking part in several different sports.
After proving the insurance company wrong for more than four decades, he’s not about to throw in the towel now.