The population of Eeyou Istchee is roughly 17,500 – and according to Cree Health Board Director Bella Petawabano, between 7,000 and 8,000 Crees travel every year for healthcare reasons to destinations outside the Cree Nation. For that reason, on October 26, the CHB partnered with Air Creebec to launch a regular Cree Patient Air Shuttle flight from Chisasibi to Val-d’Or and Montreal.
The medical shuttle will bring huge changes for patients travelling for non-emergency reasons, Petawabano underlined. Previously, patients had to ride an Air Creebec scheduled flight, known generally as “the milk run,” which is exhausting even for healthy people.
“For people coming from Whapmagoostui, [the scheduled flight] is a long ride and a lot of stops, to Chisasibi, down to Waskaganish, and then to Val-d’Or and Montreal. That’s more than several hours on and off the plane,” she said.
“Plus, from the plane to the terminal, especially at the Montreal airport, that’s a long walk. Depending on how fast you walk, that could be a 10-minute walk to arrivals. If you’re not feeling all that great, having to do all that walking is hard. Plus, coming back, having to wake up at 4 in the morning to be picked up by transport and brought to the airport, going through security – that’s very difficult for people who’ve just gone through surgery!”
Jane Sam Cromarty is Chisasibi’s interim Local Health Board Director, but, like most people in Eeyou Istchee, she’s also cared for a loved one who needed to travel. In her case, her late husband needed to make regular trips to Montreal for dialysis.
“He didn’t like that, when he was going down for treatment,” Cromarty said. “It was very tiring. I went to escort him, and I had to put him in a wheelchair, and take him through, make sure he had all his papers. You eliminate all that with patients going directly. From that perspective, it’s really good for patients, especially when they are sick. Travelling down for treatment is a lot for them already. This is going to be a big change, and a real improvement.”
Aboard the maiden flight of the shuttle, Wemindji’s Lindy Georgekish had no complaints about the Cree Health Board, but said he’d wait to see what kind of difference the shuttle made to his experience. Still, he acknowledged that his medical travelling had been exhausting.
“Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “When I was doing my chemo treatment, I had to go back home two weeks, come back here and stay a week, then go home again. Back and forth for four months.”
Air Creebec Chief Operating Officer Tanya Pash took part in the planning of the flight. Like Cromarty, she’s both professionally and personally involved, with loved ones who need to fly south.
“For Elders, it’s going to be easier,” Pash said. “We have a nurse on board, so if there’s any medical issues during the flight they can be addressed.”
More personally, Pash said, she has relatives who don’t speak English or French but have to travel to Montreal or Quebec City for medical care.
“For me, it’s easier knowing they’re going to be taken care of,” said Pash. “Sometimes I’ve gone to the airport in Val-d’Or to help them get through security. This alleviates that stress: they’re picked up and dropped off at the airport. There’s no way they can get lost or displaced – or have those communication issues, because they’ll be with other Crees.”
Other initiatives the CHB is working on are designed to cut out the need for travel entirely, said Petawabano. She pointed to the development of long-distance telemedicine that allows patients to go to Waskaganish rather than Montreal to have their eyes checked via satellite-examination. It’s a big deal for a population with a high rate of diabetes that needs constant access to quality eye-care.
“Imagine what people had to do before!” she said. “A day of travel south, a day to have their eyes checked, and then a day to travel back – that’s three days!”
But for those who still have to travel, everyone agreed the shuttle would make life easier.
“When they were talking about it, I was all for it,” said Cromarty. “I said, ‘Finally there’s something for patients.’”