After heat wave deaths, mourning Quebec families wonder what could have been done differently

Gilbert-Bernard Marceau was one of as many as 70 Quebecers who died in this month's heat wave. His son, Philippe, wishes he had done more to make sure his father stayed cool. “I will have this on my conscience for the rest of my days,” he said.

'If you know someone who needs help, check on them,' says son whose father died

Philippe Marceau wishes he had made sure his father, who died Wednesday, stayed cool during the city's record-setting heat wave. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Philippe Marceau last spoke to his father a week ago Monday, as the sun beat down on Montreal.

His father, Gilbert-Bernard Marceau, 72, sounded uncomfortable, but Philippe never suspected he was in any danger.

Two days later, he was found unconscious in his Rosemont apartment. The windows were closed, Philippe later heard, and the air was "suffocating."

He was declared dead in hospital the same afternoon.

"I will have this on my conscience for the rest of my days," Philippe said.

While the cause of death hasn't been confirmed, and Gilbert-Bernard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, Philippe blames the heat.

Philippe, who lives in Côte-Saint-Paul, on the other side of the city, regrets not buying his father an air conditioner, or at least making the trip to check up on him.

He urged others not to make the same mistake the next time the temperature rises.

"If you know someone who needs help, check on them," he said.

Majority of victims male, living alone

As many as 70 people are believed to have died across the province as a result of heat-related complications during the heat wave, provincial officials said.

At its peak, the temperature felt like more than 40 with the humidex.

Most of the deaths occurred in Montreal, with 34 cases reported to authorities.

According to Montreal's public health office, the majority of people who died on the island of Montreal during the heat wave were like Gilbert-Bernard: over 60, living alone and suffering from chronic illness.
Gilbert-Bernard Marceau, 72, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. (Submitted by Philippe Marceau)

Many were dependent on community-based agencies for meals or home visits and other support services.

Melissa Dalva, co-ordinator of one of those agencies, the Yellow Door Generations Project, took tools in hand herself last week to install an air conditioner in one client's home.

"She wasn't able to lift heavy things," said Dalva, who made the rounds of isolated seniors to make sure they were all staying cool. 

"They are vulnerable."

The number of hot days in Montreal is expected to soar in the coming years as a result of climate change. According to one projection model, between 1976 and 2005, Montreal had an average of eight days a year above 30 C. 

By 2050, that could climb to 50 days a year.

Reluctant to leave

Health officials urged residents to check on neighbours and loved ones during the heat wave, and firefighters and police went door to door.

Sometimes, though, people at risk are reluctant to leave their home, even when it's in their best interest.

Carina Brouillet-Houle repeatedly tried to get her mother, Diane Brouillet, to join her for the week with her children in their air-conditioned home on Montreal's South Shore. 

Diane Brouillet, 73, died in her LaSalle home on Thursday. (Submitted by Carina Brouillet-Houle)

But her mother refused. Brouillet-Houle likened her mother to those who defy orders to evacuate during a flood or hurricane warning.

"I tried," she said. "She was comfortable there. She knows the place, and she never wanted to disturb anyone."

Brouillet was overweight and suffered from fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by chronic muscle pain, fatigue and sleep problems, and she feared an air conditioner would exacerbate her symptoms.

She died in her home on the second floor of a LaSalle duplex, where she had lived for the last 42 years. When she was found, the heat was "unbearable," her daughter said. Brouillet is believed to have died of a heart attack.

If Brouillet-Houle could go back in time, she would have forced her mother to leave.

"She had a big heart," Brouillet-Houle said. "I just wish I would have said, 'No. I'm not taking no for an answer.'"

With files from Simon Nakonechny