Stop flying sick Nunavik kids without their parents, emergency doctor says
“From what I know, to this day, children still arrive without any parent”
Samir Shaheen-Hussain has seen firsthand the trauma caused by the Quebec government’s policy of evacuating Inuit children from Nunavik to southern hospitals for treatment without their parents.
The Montreal emergency pediatrician spoke to the Viens commission on Wednesday, March 22, about the practice, which the provincial government recently promised to end.
It can’t happen soon enough, said Shaheen-Hussain.
“It should have been changed yesterday,” he said.
During his presentation, Shaheen-Hussain recounted how a little Nunavik boy arrived at the children’s hospital in Montreal, but it wasn’t clear whether for not he needed a possibly risky brain scan. He was crying, but it turned out that was he was crying because he wanted his parents.
And then there was the story about a little girl who had swallowed a coin but couldn’t talk about what had happened, and her parents weren’t around to discuss possible treatment.
It’s scary, Shaheen-Hussain said.
“For any child it’s a trauma. For a child that’s thousands of kilometres away from home, it’s a real large trauma,” he said.
Communication is also essential for doctors who have to know what to prescribe patients, so it’s a game-changer when sick or injured children, who can’t speak for themselves, arrive with paperwork that is absent or incomplete.
Not having parents’ input in those situations can hamper medical decision-making, and parents also need to understand the treatment their children will receive.
Sometimes when Inuit parents, who can’t accompany their children on the Challenger, do finally make it to the hospital, nurses and doctors may be prejudiced against them because they don’t understand why the parents weren’t with their children, said Shaheen-Hussain.
If the children die or need to be resuscitated, it’s better for parents to be there.
Shaheen-Hussain spoke about a mother who put her child on the Challenger in Chisasibi to get the care he needed, but on the way down, he suffered brain death. She was not able to be with him when he died.
We shouldn’t let this happen again, said Shaheen-Hussain, who wiped tears from his eyes as he spoke.
Quebec’s policy on medical evacuations using the government’s Challenger jet, sees at least 200 children a year from Nunavik flown south for medical treatment without their parents.
Early last month, Quebec agreed to revisit the policy that prevents parents from accompanying their sick or injured children aboard the Challenger.
Quebec Health Minister Gaétan Barrette told reporters outside Quebec’s National Assembly on Feb. 6 that his department is working on an arrangement that would allow at least one parent to board the air ambulance.
But that would require a costly reconfiguration of the Challenger and could take the aircraft out of the air for a year.
Barrette also said pilots would reserve the right not to allow parents on if they became agitated.
“It plays on stereotypes. I would have done this differently,” Shaheen-Hussain said of Barrette’s comments, questioning why the health minister used the example of the out-of-control northern parents. “This was really unfortunate.”
He also criticized the message that Indigenous people are “using all our resources.”
Even worse, “from what I know, to this day, children still arrive without any parent,” said Shaheen-Hussain, who ended his presentation with some words spoken by the late Nunavik broadcaster Elashuk Pauyungie.
“We, Inuit, know that we have to work with you, Qallunaat, for a long time still. And we agree with that. But if you wish for that to work, to be fruitful, you will have to listen to us.”
The commission hearings will pick up again next month in Val d’Or.
This November, Jacques Viens, a former Quebec judge, will produce recommendations on how improve services in Nunavik and other Indigenous communities.
In Montreal, where the two weeks of hearings wrap up March 23, the commission heard:
• A call for improved housing to improve conditions for youth in Quebec
• A review of needed improvements in Nunavik’s corrections system
• Shortfalls in the youth protection system from a former social worker in Nunavik
• Quebec’s new southern Inuit org plans big needs study to push for services