Botched medevac contributed to wife’s death, Nunavut man says
Leonard Epilon points to absence of promised Learjet for Kitikmeot medevacs
Nearly three years have passed since Betty Atighioyak, 32, of Cambridge Bay died — but her common-law husband, Leonard Epilon, wonders why a promised Learjet air ambulance was not available then and why it’s still rarely available now in his community.
“I’m still worried anything could happen and there’s no jet here,” Epilon said in a recent telephone conversation from Cambridge Bay.
Since Atighioyak’s Dec. 13, 2011 death, which took place 1,970 kilometres away in Edmonton, five days after she suffered an apparent stroke at home, Epilon, 48, a handyman and widower with young children to care for, hasn’t given up trying to find out more about what happened.
That can’t bring Atighioyak back, Epilon knows, but it could help prevent other losses of life.
Aqsaqniq Airways Ltd. obtained the air ambulance Government of Nunavut contract for the Kitikmeot region in 2011, a contract that had previously been held by Cambridge Bay-based Adlair Aviation Ltd.
All flight operations for that contract have been conducted by Yellowknife-based Air Tindi Ltd., a subsidiary of Discovery Air, Aqsaqniq’s 49-per-cent joint venture partner for the $30-million, five-year medevac contract.
And part of the contract says that a Learjet 35A is supposed to be based in Cambridge Bay.
Epilon says he still wants to know why Tindi doesn’t keep a Learjet 35A in place at all times in Cambridge Bay — as agreed to in Aqsaqniq’s contract with the GN.
A jet would cut the time for air travel to Edmonton down to two hours during urgent medevacs — and yet Atighioyak’s trip took more than double that time on a King Air 200 and she didn’t arrive at the hospital in Edmonton until 10:35 a.m. — about nine hours after Epilon says he first learned Atighioyak would be medevaced to Edmonton.
Epilon says he’s determined to learn what really took place during the last hours at the Kitikmeot Health Centre before Atighioyak was finally airlifted out.
He wants to know why that medical evacuation only started two hours after the first call for a medevac, why a King Air 200 was used, and why Atighioyak’s journey to Edmonton was then further slowed by a transfer in Yellowknife — when a Lear jet 35A was supposed to be kept in Cambridge Bay at all times for urgent medevacs.
Epilon says that by 2 a.m. on Dec. 8, 2011, health workers were scrambling to schedule a medevac for Atighioyak.
Around midnight on Dec. 8, Epilon had heard his wife get out of bed and then fall down.
Getting out of bed to check what happened, Epilon found her having a seizure on the floor of his home’s bathroom.
After Atighioyak arrived by ambulance at the Kitikmeot Health Centre, medical staff decided to keep her there for observation and finally told him they had decided to medevac her out.
In 2012, Epilon told Nunatsiaq News how he remembered medical staff saying it would take “so long” — that is, until about 4 a.m., for an aircraft to arrive in Cambridge Bay.
The medevac was one of the first operated under by Aqsaqniq Airways Ltd. which took over from Cambridge Bay-based Adlair on Dec. 1, 2011.
In his effort to learn more, Epilon made an access to information request.
In January 2013, Murugesh Narayanan, Nunavut’s access to information co-ordinator for the health department wrote Epilon, saying the King Air was dispatched from Cambridge Bay, that it had landed in Yellowknife to refuel and that total flying time was only four hours and 33 minutes from Cambridge Bay to Edmonton.
Other information furnished by Tindi to GN, and from the GN, which Epilon obtained, shows this timeline for the Dec. 8 medevac: the call for a medevac came in at 2:51 a.m., the medic crew was dispatched at 3 a.m., but the aircraft didn’t leave with Atighioyak until 4:57 a.m. — two hours later.
Not satisfied, Epilon then wrote the Nunavut Information and Privacy Commissioner in March, 2013, calling the information given by the GN “false” because he had heard at the health centre Dec. 8 that there was no medevac aircraft in Cambridge Bay.
“I’ve had so much tragedy in my life and lately for myself, and my kids’ sake and would like the truth,” he wrote.
Since then, Epilon also asked to receive more information about his common-law wife’s health condition. That was initially refused because he and Atighioyak weren’t legally married, prompting Epilon to appeal again to the information commissioner.
“I feel like the health department brushed me off,” Epilon told Nunatsiaq News.
According to a 2011 briefing note from the Department of Health and Social Services on the Kitikmeot medevac contract, obtained by Nunatsiaq News, the medevac provider — Aqsaqniq — agreed to “have a dedicated Lear Jet 35A with a gravel kit and STOL (short take off and landing) kit installed which will allow them to access all communities in the Kitikmeot by jet [from Cambridge Bay]. A back-up King Air 200 will be located in Yellowknife.”
And an information sheet from “Aqsaqniq Airways, Nunavut’s premier, Inuit-owned medevac team” on its medevac services says “the goal is to have the entire medevac team airborne within 60 minutes.”
Epilon’s complaint about the lack of a Learjet and other delays was not the only complaint made to the health department during that period — other information obtained from an ATIP request and furnished by Epilon, reveals that in March 2012 Kim Dunlop, then the GN’s director of health programs for the Kitikmeot, wrote an email to health department managers in Iqaluit.
“I receive at least one complaint a week from either practitioners, community members or clients,” she said.
Dunlop cited complaints about dispatch miscommunication, delayed responses, stopovers and transfers as well as clinical and equipment concerns.
“The originally promised Learjet, which scored very high in the evaluation process [for the Kitikmeot medevac contract], is still not here.”
Contacted Nov. 19, Trevor Wever, vice president of operations from Tindi, disputed that version of events.
He said a more recent study by GN on medevacs in the Kitikmeot — which the Nunatsiaq News has not seen — showed “better service.”
As for the Learjet 35A, the aircraft was in service early in 2012, Wever said.
But the aircraft is now in Yellowknife for maintenance. A King Air 200 and often a King Air 350 are now in Cambridge Bay, he said.
Wever maintains that the Learjet has been stationed in Cambridge Bay since 2012 — but said that the aircraft can’t be kept in the western Nunavut hub during the spring and fall when the runway is either melting or freezing and during periods of maintenance.
Aviation observers in Cambridge Bay say the Learjet 35A has suffered from many operational problems since 2012 and has been in Cambridge Bay only sporadically since April 2014.
Wever called concerns over the Learjet a “non-issue” at this point — three years into the medevac contract.
Tindi took over the medevacs operation on Dec. 1, 2011 after Adlair lost the medevac contract.
Adlair had based a Learjet 25B for 22 years, year-round, in Cambridge Bay, along with two King Air 200s.
Adlair’s René Laserich said the company is now suing the GN over how 2011 Kitikmeot medevac contract proposals were evaluated.