“I’m only six years old, I can’t travel alone” Cree parents prevented from accompanying son on medevac to Montreal

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Seriously ill, Pelle Loon Jr. couldn’t understand why he was boarding an airplane to Montreal all by himself, as his mother tearfully tried to explain what was happening on the tarmac in Chibougamau.

The six-year-old boy was being medevaced to Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital for surgery after he was diagnosed with intestinal bleeding at the small regional hospital in northern Quebec. But why he travelled alone is still a mystery.

The road to to the family’s wrenching goodbye began several days earlier in their home community of Waswanipi. On August 20, Pelle Loon was called to come pick up his son from school as he was complaining of stomach pains. When they arrived at the family’s home, Loon said his son threw up on his hands while he was taking his temperature.

Loon also told the Nation that his son’s vomit was dark red, almost black. But when he took his son to the local clinic and showed the doctors and nurses a picture of the vomit, his son was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and sent home.

On August 22, when Loon Jr. was still showing the same symptoms, the family returned to the clinic for tests. They returned a day later for a follow-up appointment and were then instructed to drive to the hospital in Chibougamau. At this point, their son’s case was still being treated as a non-emergency.

“I didn’t care if it wasn’t an emergency to them, I sped down all the way to the hospital,” Loon explained. “It didn’t feel right.”

On the drive down, Loon’s wife, Valerie-Lynn Gull, had to stay with their son in the backseat to keep him from passing out. However, even before they got into the car Loon reported his son was having difficulty walking.

“The clinic in Waswanipi said he didn’t need an ambulance, but when we got to the hospital, they were expecting him,” said Loon. “All the nurses and doctors were rushing around, and my son was admitted and more tests were done as soon as we arrived.”

In Chibougamau it was revealed that Loon Jr. would need a blood transfusion because of a very low haemoglobin count before finally being diagnosed with internal bleeding. But while Chibougamau has a surgeon on staff, he informed the family that he would be unable to perform the procedure on Loon Jr., and that because he was a child, he’d have to be flown to Montreal for the procedure.

“The nurse told us that if it were up to her, one of us would fly with him, but she was told that no patient escorts would be flying on the plane,” said Loon. “We were devastated and hurt to find out we couldn’t fly with him.

“When my wife was trying to explain what was happening to our son on the plane, he said to her, ‘Mom, tell them I’m only six years old, I can’t go alone.’”

Back in February, Quebec Health and Social Services Minister Gaétan Barrette announced that medevac planes would be reconfigured to include parents of sick children. The Quebec Aeromedical Evacuations (EVAQ) finally adopted the policy in an announcement June 29. But, as the Loon family story illustrates, little has changed.

“Civil aviation safety rules… are such that the pilot or the ground crew may in certain circumstances refuse accompaniment for a patient,” Barrette told CBC Radio-Canada. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s settled, since the rule has been changed and things have been established clearly.”

According to Gull, however, the plane didn’t look full. And she also reports seeing at least one person in street clothes while the rest of the plane’s occupants were in uniforms.

After leaving their son alone on the plane, the couple drove throughout the night to join their son in Montreal. Sainte-Justine Hospital staff were also confused about why the boy had traveled alone. “The doctors were waiting for us to get there,” explained Loon. “They weren’t going to do the procedure without us being present.”

In Montreal, Loon Jr. received two surgeries and was diagnosed with North American Indian childhood cirrhosis, a potentially life-threatening disease.

“When we were in Montreal, the doctor there was surprised the doctors and nurses in Waswanipi couldn’t piece together what was happening to our son,” Valerie-Lynn Gull told the Nation.

After viewing the same photo the Waswanipi medical team had seen, the Montreal doctor informed the parents that it should have been obvious that there was something wrong with their son.

Loon Jr. is currently back home with his family and in stable condition but will require a liver transplant in the future. So far no one from the Quebec or Cree governments has reached out to the family explaining or apologizing for the ordeal it went through.

“I know we’re not the only ones who’ve gone through this,” Loon said in closing. “We just hope this doesn’t happen to other families.”

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