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Sachs Harbour man undergoes emergency surgery alone
Initial Medical Travel decision keeps wife from husband's bedside

Galit Rodan
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, September 17, 2011

Married for 35 years, Annie Inuktalik always told her husband Donald that so long as they were together, everything would be okay.

But on Sept. 6, Annie watched helplessly from the ground as Donald was medevaced to Inuvik from their home in Sachs Harbour, more than 500km away.

Four days later, he was at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife, alone, undergoing emergency surgery for diverticulitis.

NNSL photo/graphic

Annie and Donald Inuktalik hold hands in Donald's room at the Stanton Territorial Hospital, Wednesday, Sept. 14. Donald was medevaced from Sachs Harbour to Inuvik and then to Yellowknife, where he had emergency surgery for diverticulitis. He was denied a non-medical escort on the first leg of his journey. When wife Annie was later approved for travel, weather kept them apart for five days and she was unable to be present for his surgery, which he underwent alone. They were reunited in Yellowknife on Sept. 11. As the couple held hands, Donald began to tear up. "This is how it should have been in the first place," he said. - Galit Rodan/NNSL photo

Donald woke at 4 a.m. on Sept. 5 and, upon going to the bathroom, stood up to find his bowel movement was filled with blood. Shocked and unsure of what to do next, he did his best to clean up and went back to bed, but Annie found out anyway and urged him to seek help.

Donald went to the health centre when it opened after Labour Day and was told he would have to be flown to Inuvik for treatment.

When Donald asked that Annie accomapny him on the flight, the two Aklak Air pilots, emergency medical technician, nurse and community health representative expressed no opposition, said Donald. But that changed after a call to Medical Travel in Inuvik, “Soon as I mentioned her name they flat outright said no,” Donald said. “I knew something was wrong with me and I was scared. And I wanted family and my wife is my family."

“What I heard afterwards was that you gotta be 70 or really sick and he was really sick,” said Annie. Donald and Annie are both 54.

Annie went back to the couple’s home in Sachs Harbour where they live alone, having moved away from family in Ulukhaktok when Donald was offered a job with the Sachs Harbour Housing Association.

The next day, said Donald, officials at the Inuvik Regional Hospital asked about contacting Annie, to try and get her to Inuvik. “And I said, ‘For what?’ I mean, you know, that’s what I was trying to do the first time it was happening."

Though there had been a scheduled flight from Sachs Harbour to Inuvik on the same day Donald was medevaced, Annie had not been approved for it. But after Donald’s arrival in Inuvik, plans were made to fly Annie in on Thursday, Sept. 8.

Grounded by weather on both Thursday and Friday, Annie finally made it to Inuvik on Saturday , Sept. 10, but by that time, Donald had already been sent to Yellowknife and undergone emergency surgery at Stanton Territorial Hospital.

Around 2:30 a.m. Saturday, “I’m going into the operating room. I still had nobody with me. I was all alone. I’m scared. I’ve never been through this kind of situation before,” said Donald.

“He cried a lot,” said Annie.

“I cried,” confirmed Donald, solemnly.

Annie did her fair share of crying, too. “Yes, I did a lot of that at home,” she said.

Donald had asked his doctor to phone Annie just prior to and following his surgery.

“That was the most horrible part,” said Annie. “I never slept. It was nighttime. I just had to wait until the phone rang. I was still in Sachs. I was all alone. Those four hours were the most horrible time.”

Donald’s surgery was successful. His older sister, Susie Evyagotailak, arrived in Yellowknife shortly after his operation and Annie arrived the next day.

On Sept. 11, “Finally I open my eyes. I see my wife, finally she’s here,” said Donald. “And I was so happy to see her.”

Donald and Annie are still wondering why Annie was denied that initial flight, keeping them apart for five days.

They feel especially betrayed after having attended a town hall meeting in Ulukhaktok several years ago and hearing former minister of health Sandy Lee and Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson speak about improving this aspect of health care. “These big political people they go to communities and talk about health issues and what they can improve. Everything seemed so good, finally…and some things are gonna change for better. They talked about escorts and all that. And when that happens. What happened to all the good ideas and all that good stuff that’s gonna change here?” he wondered.

Although nothing can be done to reverse the couple’s “nightmare,” “I don’t want to see it happen to anybody else, especially the ones that don’t understand the system,” said Donald.

Donald and Annie likely will not get answers anytime soon.

“Our medical travel policy is currently under review,” said Damien Healy, manager of communications for the Department of Health and Social Services.

Donald was due to be released from Stanton on Friday, Sept. 16 and the couple said they would likely be spending six weeks with their four children and 10 grandchildren in Ulukhaktok while Donald recovers.

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