Family demands answers after frightened Atikamekw man flees hospital, later returns and dies

George-Hervey Awashish headed to hospital in August for help with several medical issues. But something he says he heard made him call family and ask them to help him leave as quickly as possible. He died shortly after he returned.

George-Hervey Awashish was convinced to return, but his family wonders if the stress contributed to his death

George-Hervey Awashish, seen here with his daughter Kimberley Sikon Awashish, died after fleeing and then returning to a hospital where, he told family, he felt threatened. (Submitted by Kimberley Sikon Awashish)

George-Hervey Awashish's health had been deteriorating for months. The 53-year-old Atikamekw man from Obejiwan, Que., was already dealing with diabetes and arthritis and had a dormant prostate tumour.

His experience at a Chicoutimi hospital so terrified him that he fled to a hotel. He was finally convinced to return by nurses, but died 11 days after the incident.

Now his family is awaiting the results of a coroner's investigation, wondering what really happened at the hospital and whether it contributed to his death.

"I'm asking questions," his daughter, Kimberly Sikon Awashish, said. "Why is he dead?"

The story started last August, when what began as an unexplained feeling of ill-health turned into an ambulance trip to the hospital.

Over the next several weeks — and transfers to various hospitals — Awashish was told his kidneys were failing and that he would need to start dialysis. He had developed infections on his feet that were so severe he could barely walk.

In the early hours of Oct. 1, while in the Chicoutimi hospital, he woke up in terrible pain and headed to the bathroom. Then, Awashish said he heard something that made him fear for his life.

Just the week before, Joyce Echaquan, who was also Atikamekw, had died only hours after streaming a video of herself crying out for help from her hospital bed in Joliette, Que., as nurses mocked her.

Her death prompted public outrage and a wide discussion about systemic racism in Quebec's health-care system.

George-Hervey Awashish would later tell La Converse media that he had overheard hospital staff laughing about what happened.

The Chicoutimi hospital, where George-Hervey Awashish died. (Lynda Paradis / Radio-Canada)

"They were talking about Manawan. Madame Echaquan. And laughing," he said.

"After that, I heard one of the nurses saying: 'We have one. We have one. An Indian sleeping here in the room. We should inject him with toxic products. His problem will be solved. He's not walking anymore, anyway.'"

Immediately, Awashish began texting his son, Shawnok, begging to be picked up from the hospital.

Once his son got there, they took off abruptly and without authorization, even though several nurses urged them to stay.

Only after they had arrived at a Chicoutimi hotel did George-Hervey tell his son what was bothering him. Shawnok said he had never seen his father like that before.

"He seemed afraid. Afraid for his life. Traumatized," he said.

'I won't let him go back there'

That day, Shawnok published his father's allegations on Facebook, in a post that would be shared more than 800 times. "I won't let him go back there," Shawnok wrote. "This shocks me so much."

However, Chicoutimi hospital staff believed Awashish needed immediate care, according to a redacted report obtained by the CBC through Access to Information.

The hospital dispatched two nurses, accompanied by a security guard, to treat him in his hotel room. Even though they pressed him to return to hospital, he refused.

It was not until the next day, when nurses returned to care for him again, this time accompanied by a social worker and police — hospital staff said they feared for their safety due to some of the responses the Facebook post had gathered — that Awashish agreed to go back to the hospital.

George-Hervey Awashish had multiple health problems: diabetes, arthritis and a prostate tumour. (submitted by the Awashish family)

His daughter, Kimberley Sikon, says he didn't have much choice, because his medical condition was deteriorating.

When he had overheard the alleged comments, Awashish was being treated on the hospital's fourth floor. This time, he was placed on the second, with a note on his file that he was not to be transferred back, his daughter says.

A death and an investigation

When he died days later in the Chicoutimi hospital, the coroner launched an investigation and his family requested an autopsy.

They still wonder whether the stressful events and his time out of hospital were factors that contributed to his death.

"I ask myself questions. Maybe yes, maybe no," Kimberley Sikon said.

Awashish's family is also still skeptical about the quality of care their father may have received.

However, the CIUSSS-du-Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, which manages the Chicoutimi hospital, points to the results of an external investigation, which concluded that George-Hervey Awashish's allegations of threats were "without evidence."

Care provided in the 'right way'

An investigator with the private firm Solutions RH 2000 interviewed eight hospital staff members. Some complained of Awashish being rude or swearing. All denied making — or hearing — any threatening or racist remarks.

"Mister Awashish clearly believed that he heard things," said Serge Lavoie, the health authority's director of multidisciplinary services, who is also responsible for relations with Indigenous communities.

"Did his physical condition, the fact that he was on medication, did it distort reality? Maybe. I do not know," Lavoie said.

"Up until now, what it [the report] tells us is health care was provided in the right way. Were there reprehensible attitudes? I can't say. We don't know. The report doesn't say."

Some First Nations leaders, however, say Awashish's allegations are credible.

Claudette Awashish, the director general of the Saguenay Indigenous friendship centre, met with him in the days after he left the hospital.

"He was scared. He said to me, 'I don't want to go back to the hospital. It's true. I heard them. I was not in a medicated state. I really heard them,'" Awashish, who is not closely related to George-Hervey, said.

"I believe him."

A familiar tale

The centre started its own health-care clinic 11 years ago because so many First Nations people felt judged and dismissed by the Chicoutimi hospital and the surrounding health-care system.

They used to come forward with stories every week until COVID-19 pandemic restrictions reduced foot traffic, Awashish said.

"Some people have been told 'Oh, he's sick because he's an alcoholic. He's a drug addict.' Right away, they have a label put on them when they go to the emergency room."

Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation Constant Awashish, who is not a close relative, said that George-Hervey Awashish's story highlights the extreme mistrust some Atikamekw people have in those who are supposed to be caring for them.

He says the timing of the incident — only days after Joyce Echequan's death — is important.

"The Atikamekw people and First Nations in general were still very sensitive with the subject, not feeling too comfortable or safe with the health system. I think that's what happened with George-Hervey Awashish," the grand chief said.

"Mister George-Hervey was persuaded at that moment that they (the alleged comments) were threats," he said.

"If it was a joke, it was a very misplaced joke, and that is not the way to make those kinds of comments. Especially since he was Atikamekw. She was Atikamekw. There had been a suspicious death. It was not appropriate and he had reason to be worried."

Lavoie agrees there is a general lack of trust in the health-care system. Two years ago, the CIUSSS hired an Indigenous consultant to provide sensitivity training to health-care workers.

Lavoie says health-care workers might not recognize when their Indigenous patients need to be reassured.

"First nations might have another way of expressing their insecurity that we might not always decipher."