“Let me breathe for you,” he told his wife. He cradled her face in his large weathered hands and forced air into her mouth. Laura Shewaybick had been struggling to breathe. It was a cool night in Webequie First Nation, hovering just above 5 degrees Celsius. She and her husband Norman were desperately waiting for a medevac flight to arrive, which was due to land at 3:30 a.m.
Laura was 51 years old and very healthy until a flu bug took hold of her in September 2015 and wouldn’t let go. She had visited the nursing station twice before, first on Sept. 18, then again on Sept. 19, complaining about the same symptoms.
It was after midnight Sept. 20 when Norman woke to see his wife sitting up on their living room couch. He’d been sleeping on the floor beside her, worried over her continued decline.
“I can’t breathe,” she told her husband.
Norman decided she needed to go back to the nursing station.
On their way, Laura fainted twice, once outside as she was getting into their truck and again at the nursing station, in the lobby.
And now she laboured to breathe, taking in the air Norman was forcing into her.
The oxygen tank that had been alleviating some of her distress had emptied. Other tanks sat empty in the hallway of the nursing station, operated by Health Canada.
Norman and Laura fell into an easy relationship in their early 20s. The pair worked for Norman’s father at the time, he as a security guard and she as a secretary. His father operated a sawmill.
Norman grins at the memory of their beginnings.
“Back in those days … the moms were very strict.”
So they kept their growing relationship a secret.
“I worked and she worked and we got together. Then everything started. Then one day we had a kid.
“Yeah his name is Leon,” he laughs, pausing to relish the memory.
They married, had more sons, including one Norman adopted after a close friend passed away last September.
Each worked hard, Norman held various jobs including a peacekeeper role, while Laura moved through administrative positions.
Norman’s path eventually led to teaching, earning a teaching degree through Lakehead University. Laura settled into the same field, becoming executive secretary for the community’s education authority.
Outside of their professional roles, each change of season brought them to the islands near Webequie, where Norman was raised.
“Every island has a legend, a story behind it,” he explained. “We fell in love with those islands.”
An abundance of fish, moose, geese and caribou kept the couple busy.
All that was on hold now. Norman was anxious. He left Laura and went to the reception area. Laura’s aunt and niece were waiting to hear any news about what was happening. After being told there was no more oxygen, her aunt, Emma, pleaded to no one, “Why is this happening?”
A spokesperson for Health Canada, Maryse Durette, said the inventory of medical supplies, in general, at 76 First Nation nursing stations and 195 health centres across Canada is managed to respond to health needs and ensure patient safety.
“Each nursing station keeps a stock supply of oxygen on hand to stabilize patients for treatment and evacuation in urgent situations,” Durette said. “Equipment and supplies are checked each shift, including assessments of the number of oxygen tanks and lines. Nursing station personnel will order oxygen to maintain appropriate inventory. Delivery of supply happens within 24 hours, weather permitting.”
In general, said Durette, Health Canada works with First Nations leaders, provincial partners and health professionals to enable First Nations people living in remote and isolated communities to have access to high quality health care.
Medical supplies are ordered monthly or when supplies require replenishing, she said. “There are mechanisms in place for same (or) next day delivery if needed.”
Norman stepped outside and looked up to the night sky. He caught sight of pinpoint lights to the south and watched as they steadily grew in size. The medevac plane was finally getting close. Webequie is a remote community 540 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. It’s only accessible by air or winter road.
The paramedics arrived 15 minutes later. Inside, they began preparing Laura for transport. The oxygen tank they brought was running low, which meant moving her quickly to the plane, where oxygen was readily available.
Laura was flown to Thunder Bay and admitted to Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC). She was sedated and remained unconscious for the first two days she spent in the intensive care unit (ICU). She spent a few weeks there.
“She was getting better; she was talking,” Norman said.
The couple even began making plans to return to their favourite place: “The Islands,” his homeland.
The beach-rich islets inspired Laura to re-learn traditional, land-based practices, after her traditional knowledge had eroded from spending months at a time attending high school. Two years into her marriage to Norman, The Islands helped the couple find traditional teachers.
“I remember crossing this lake, when I saw these canoes on one island,” Norman recalled. “I went there and saw these ladies; they were camping out. So, I introduced my wife to them.” The women taught Laura a lot about traditional harvesting.
Norman chided his wife for thinking of returning to The Islands so soon after fighting pneumonia, but she said she would wear more clothes. “I want to be there,” she told him.
He smiled while recounting the memory.
“The Islands are the places we raised our kids. A lot of fishing holes there. We just fished all summer. This past summer, that’s what we did. During the fall, we caught a big bull moose.”
Quietly, he added: “It’s not a trapline. It’s a homeland for me.”
Norman’s voice grew stronger as he remembered the day his wife was transferred from the ICU at the hospital to room 115-A.
With the move, the quality of her care dropped dramatically, Norman said.
He drew comparison from another patient near Laura. “Four nurses showed up every time she coughed,” he said. “But when my wife coughed, nobody showed up.”
Norman stayed by her side, worried her care would suffer if he wasn’t there to aid her. But Laura worried about him too, with the long hours he was spending in the hospital. She felt sorry for him. So on Oct. 8, she told him he needed to go out and enjoy himself. After some arguing back and forth, Laura won.
Norman decided to call his father-in-law. “Let’s go to bingo on the reserve,” he suggested, and that’s what they did.
Once he returned to the hotel, Norman loaned his truck to his son.
Back in his room, he opened his laptop and his heart dropped.
“I’m scared,” Laura messaged.
“What are you scared of?” he asked.
She responded, “three times.”
“Three times, what?” he asked urgently.
“Three times, I asked the nurse … .”
Norman didn’t wait for her to finish. He needed to be with her. Fifteen minutes later, he was by her side back in room 115-A.
Laura was sitting up when he arrived. She explained she had told the nurse three times that she felt like she was plugging up. She couldn’t catch her breath.
Norman rushed to the nurses’ station and asked for his wife’s nurse. She would be paged and get to Laura’s room shortly, the other nurses reassured him. A few minutes later the nurse arrived with a portable heart and oxygen monitor.
It was almost midnight now.
Norman quietly sat beside his wife’s bed as the nurse pushed the monitor near his face and told him, “There’s nothing wrong with her.”
She did the same to Laura.
Norman said the nurse’s voice was raised as she told his wife, “There’s nothing wrong with you Laura!”
Laura stood up then and collapsed into her husband’s arms.
“I told that nurse, ‘There is something wrong with her,’ ” Norman said.
He bowed his head for a long moment before returning to his narrative.
“I watched her run, that nurse, watched her use her little radio: ‘Code blue! Code blue! Code blue!’”
He paused again, lost in the memory of holding his wife as he near whispered, “code blue, code blue, code blue.”
Then everybody showed up, he recounted with a grimace. “They tried to revive her.”
Phone calls to TBRHSC have not been returned as of publication time.
It was after midnight now and it would have been Norman and Laura’s 26th wedding anniversary.
“I lost my wife,” he said. “And I tell you right now, she wasn’t supposed to die. She fought hard to stay alive.”
Time stood still for Norman.
He remembered sitting outside the hospital, on a lawn.
“There was this sun,” he shared. “A little ray came out of that sun and that’s when I saw her (Laura). She comes to me and her hair was all white and her dress was so pretty. Then she turned around and there he was.
“Who is this?” Norman asked Laura.
“That’s your son,” Laura replied.
Norman had a son who died years before. He was in awe.
“Have faith,” Laura told him.
Norman Shewaybick now wears a small cross around his neck. It’s the cross necklace his wife Laura wore for many years of her life. He held it as he shared his vision, absently turning it with his fingers.
Laura’s words inspired him. “Have faith,” she told him in his vision.
It’s why he feels compelled to walk.
Norman began a trek from Thunder Bay to Webequie on Feb. 12, flanked by his four sons and his wife’s best friend, Jessie Sofea. “It’s a healing journey,” Norman said. The journey spanned more than 1,000 kilometres, much of it on a winter road that winds through the remote North over muskeg and ice. The group reached Webequie, Feb. 29.
He always thought he would be a chief or a band councillor one day, but Norman doesn’t believe that anymore.
“My grandfather told me ‘There’s going to be a day, a time, we have to make a statement about who we really are. And there’ll be a time when you will be pushed too far. You’ll know who you are.’ ”
Norman paused a moment.
“I am change maker,” he stated simply.
And he believes his role is to help improve the quality of health care delivered to First Nation communities. He doesn’t want anyone else to experience what he did.
“Look at our reserves. There are mould problems – that’s a big health problem. Look at the Elders losing their loved ones, their wives or their husbands. I know that feeling. It’s like half of yourself is gone.”
Norman said First Nation community members shouldn’t have to leave their homes to access health care, such as those who are forced to move away for dialysis treatment.
“It’s the system that’s got to change,” he said.
And First Nations leaders from northern Ontario agree. Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler and Sioux Lookout area chiefs declared a health and public health emergency for First Nations in the Sioux Lookout region and across NAN territory on Feb. 24 in Toronto.
“The chronic failure of the health care system for First Nations in the Sioux Look region and across NAN territory has left our communities in a state of crisis,” Fiddler said. “Children are dying and lives are at risk. The fact that many First Nations still lack access to even the most basic health services is nothing short of a national tragedy. The many urgent and long-standing health issues that plague our communities are well-documented and the time for action is now. We are calling on all levels of government to commit to a plan of action to begin to address this crisis.”
Keith Conn, Health Canada’s regional director, faced Norman during a community meeting held in Webequie First Nation, the same day Norman arrived to complete his 1,000 km trek.
“As a small, small gesture to change … we are now instituting a whole review of all our nursing stations in northern Ontario,” Conn said. “Second to that, we are going to be purchasing and acquiring oxygen concentrators for each and every community, thanks to this change-making process.”
Conn promised those two items are just a beginning.
“There needs to be a lot more work in terms of collaboration, (and) short-term, intermediate and long-term actions around health and wellness,” he said. “Some of the work is going to take a lot of engagement and discussion. The old system is not working very well in some parts of the country. We need to keep striving to improve the system … for our young ones, for the Elders, for the adult population in terms of accessing quality care based on their needs.”
Story, photos, and film by Blue Earth Photos+Film (www.blueearthphotos.com)