Nfld. & Labrador·Video

'I have work to do here:' Delilah Saunders speaks out after release from hospital

After two hospitalizations, one which put her back in the national spotlight, Inuk activist Delilah Saunders is speaking out.

Death of her sister, Loretta, drives her to fight for equality and for herself

"It’s hard to believe I was pretty much on my deathbed a few weeks ago," said Delilah Saunders. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

For Delilah Saunders, it all comes back to her sister, Loretta.

"I couldn't stop crying one night because I realized how close I was to being reunited with her and waking up from a four-year nightmare," she said, recalling waking up in hospital last month after a week and half of being unconscious after suffering acute liver failure.

"But a part of me also knew that I have a purpose here, I have work to do here."

Delilah Saunders speaks out after two hospitalizations

5 years ago
Duration 6:29
After being hospitalized for acute liver failure and then pancreatitis, Delilah Saunders speaks about her experiences, her drinking and her activism.

Loretta Saunders, an Inuk woman from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, was murdered in Halifax almost four years ago. Delilah Saunders, Loretta's sister, has since become a prominent activist for missing and murdered Indigenous women.

She was back in the spotlight in December when she was hospitalized in Ottawa for acute liver failure.

After she was denied a spot on a waiting list for a new liver because of her history with alcohol use, protests broke out, with people claiming the policy requiring patients on the waiting list for a new organ to have abstained from alcohol for six months prior was discriminatory.

Friends, family and members of the public raised money for a lawyer and offered the 25-year-old their own liver tissue.

Some people gathered in Halifax to hold a vigil for Delilah Saunders. (CBC)

"It was very hard to hear that even if my family and friends and amazing kind strangers who have been supporting me from across the country wanted to donate their liver tissue and that they were unable to due to policy," she said.

Her condition was so serious, she said, doctors told her friends and family that if they wanted to say goodbye to her, they needed to get to Ottawa.

Alcohol 'could have definitely contributed'

Saunders said alcohol "could have definitely contributed" to her health issues — she was back in hospital last week with pancreatitis — but that she was sober for "the majority of 2017 and a good portion of 2016."

Delilah Saunders and Andrew Noseworthy are collaborating on chamber opera based on Saunders' experiences with MMIWG. (Submitted by Andrew Noseworthy )

"I have been working diligently on my sobriety," she said. "Following my sister's death, I definitely leaned on [alcohol]. However, I saw how it negatively impacted my work and how it negatively impacted my potential."

She said she had been in treatment programs to deal with the drinking, and in therapy to deal with the cause of the drinking, and that she did well with both.

More supports for testifying at MMIWG Inquiry

Saunders and her family were the first to testify in hearings held by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

That emotional experience, she said, played a part in her slip back into drinking as a way to escape the pain she had been through with Loretta's murder.

Delilah Saunders, sister of Loretta Saunders, testified during the first day of hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Nic Maloney/CBC)

Those who have testified have asked for more supports, Saunders among them.

"I didn't lapse immediately," she said. "And I think that not having the supports in place going back to Ottawa definitely made it easier for me to turn to something."

The work of the inquiry is very important, she said, and she still believes in it, but she wants to see more help for those who have to relive their experiences.

"I still believe in the work that the inquiry is doing," said Delilah Saunders. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

"My family is considerably lucky, we found my sister's body, we brought people to justice," she said.

"There are families out there who have been searching for decades, who are still very raw in their trauma because they have no answers. There are people who are still very raw in their trauma because they just lost somebody and they have no answers."

'Equal access to health care is very important'

She believes drinking should not have kept her off the transplant list.

"I think people having equal access to health care is very important," she said, noting that Eugene Melnyck, owner of the Ottawa Senators, received a liver transplant very quickly.

"That policy is not based on science by any means."

As for the negative comments she and her supporters got on social media during the last month, she said she tries not to pay attention.

I definitely believe in being able to create change.- Delilah Saunders

"I think that it's important to share one's story and I think that it's important to put a face to an issue. I understand that not everyone is going to support me and that's fine.

"But I definitely believe in being able to create change.

With files from Debbie Cooper