She was swimming in frigid waters during an attempt to rescue a man trapped in a submerged van when Ottawa police Const. Karen Desaulniers began to think of her brother, who six months earlier was presumed drowned after a boating accident.
Desaulniers received a Governor General’s Medal of Bravery at Rideau Hall in Ottawa along with 42 others, including seven others involved in the Oct. 12, 2007 rescue attempt. Three more people received stars of courage.
Desaulniers had been searching for her brother Steven, 19, for close to six months when she and three other officers got the call about a van that had veered off Colonel By Drive and plunged into the Rideau Canal.
She was the first of three officers to jump in the canal and, in her efforts to make sure no one else was trapped in the vehicle, one of the last to leave the water.
"I don't remember ever thinking, 'wow the water is cold'," she said. "But my swimming arms legs were not following my brain, they got heavy and slow."
"My brother died drowning that summer ... [so] I started to panic in myself, because that's probably what he felt. That's when I mentally shut down."
Officer suffered hypothermia
Desaulniers was later taken to hospital and treated for hypothermia, though she says she likely was suffering from shock.
The driver of the vehicle, who had suffered a heart attack before the crash, did not survive.
Also honoured with Medals of Bravery for the rescue attempt were two other Ottawa police officers, Const. Allen Percival and Const. Avery Flanagan, who joined Desaulniers in the water and assisted five civilians and military personnel who were in the water.
'My brother died drowning that summer ... [so] I started to panic in myself, because that's probably what he felt. That's when I mentally shut down.'—Const. Karen Desaulniers
Chief Warrant Officer Anthony Eric Fequet and Sgt. Lorraine Fequet of Amherstview, Ont., were the first to arrive on the scene and jumped in the canal and held the driver's head up until others could arrive to assist.
Warrant Officer Marc Joseph Fortin of Gatineau, Que., Major Ryan Denis Smid of Edmonton, Alta., and Paul Akehurst of Ottawa, also jumped in the water and helped to free the driver from the car with the help of the officers.
Desaulniers, who repeatedly dove in to make sure no one else was in the water, said she was so focused on her own efforts she has trouble remembering what other people were doing during the incident.
"I remember feeling stressed about not knowing if other people were in vehicle," she said.
Brother found dead
The award was bittersweet for Desaulniers, now 28 years old.
Two weeks after the attempted rescue, her brother's body was found.
Desaulniers said it was difficult once she learned of the honour to tell her parents, who had not known about the incident in the canal.
"I hadn't told them, so it's brought back...a lot of memories and having to talk about stuff that wasn't exactly discussed," she said.
"After that incident I've kept most of it inside. So having it all out again has been a little tough. It's a pretty private issue, because he was my best friend."