After 15 years, Iqaluit elder quits Ottawa medical care to die at home

Oqittuq Etuq returned home to Iqaluit this week to die surrounded by friends and family after he’d spent 15 years alone in Ottawa receiving dialysis treatment. The medical care is not available in Nunavut.

Oqittuq Etuq died surrounded by family Thursday morning

Oqittuq Etuq with his family. (Submitted by Eva Groves)

Oqittuq Etuq returned home to Iqaluit this week to die surrounded by friends and family after he'd spent 15 years alone in Ottawa receiving dialysis treatment.

Etuq was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2003 and the next year he was sent to Ottawa for treatment because the treatment he needed is not offered in Nunavut.

His niece Eva Groves said the years away were very hard on Etuq, who was 73 years old when he passed away Thursday morning at the Qikiqtani General Hospital. 

"He missed his home, his family. His whole world was here in Iqaluit," Groves said in Inuktitut.

Eva Groves sits with her uncle Oqittuq Etuq in the Qikiqtani General Hospital in Iqaluit. (David Gunn/CBC)

Starting in 2004, he spent a few years at Larga Baffin, a medical boarding home in Ottawa, before he was able to move into an apartment of his own but he wasn't able to sustain that, Groves said. 

For the next five years, he was homeless, moving from shelter to shelter around Ottawa, until one helped him move into the elder's home in Ottawa, Embassy West.

"He wanted to return home; he was deteriorating, tired, exhausted and missed his family. I made sure this was what he wanted and 'Yes,' he answered. 'I want to go home; I want to die at home'," Groves said.

Choosing family over medical care

So, he stopped going to his three-times-a-week dialysis, which treated his kidney failure, and flew home.

Groves said Nunavut is in dire need of an elder's care facility — one that is culturally appropriate for Inuit, so elders don't have to choose between being with family in their last days or getting medical support.

Nunavut's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Mike Patterson, said dialysis care is complicated and the number of patients that would be served at the Qikiqtani General Hospital is too few for the staff to keep their skills up to date.

Robert De Serres, who helped Etuq with cooking, housekeeping and getting to medical appointments, travelled with him to Iqaluit. (David Gunn/CBC)

In his last few years in Ottawa, Etuq was helped by Robert De Serres, a community support worker from the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health.

De Serres helped with cooking, housekeeping and getting to medical appointments, and he travelled with Etuq to Iqaluit.

"That man suffered... for... years and recently he decided that he had enough of this life, of going to the hospital three times a week and being away from his friends and family, so he decided to [die]," De Serres said.

De Serres said Etuq had trouble adapting to life in Ottawa. Etuq only spoke a little bit of English and De Serres says being unable to communicate contributed to the instability of his living situation.

"He was forced to live in an environment that was absolutely not his environment," De Serres said.

"As a Canadian, I am so sad about our country. I am so sad about our Canadian health system because the system failed this man and certainly is failing others the same way."

Etuq died with family, who said they were glad he was no longer in pain and that they could tell his story for other families in similar situations.

With files from Qavavao Peter, Pauline Pemik