Three years ago, Kenneth Weistche walked into the health clinic in Waskaganish complaining of a pain in his back. He walked out with a bunch of pills.

Forthe next three months, he kept going back almost every day, trying to get treated. The pain got worse and worse, but the doctor handling his file, Lawrence Nelson, worked in Chisasibi and wouldn’t examine him once in person.

It took two months for Kenneth to get a chance to speak to his doctor for the first time on the phone. As the pain worsened, Kenneth says he was told over and over it was all in his mind and fed more pills. At one point he was on five different medications, including valium.

Eventually, the pain started to impair his walking and he could only get around on crutches. Several times, he asked to be hospitalized and examined by a specialist. The requests were turned down, he said. “They were still telling me there was nothing wrong with me.”

Finally, he decided to go south for treatment at his own expense. That’s when a nurse in Waskaganish agreed to give Kenneth a “travel warrant” so he would be treated as an emergency case. A doctor in Amos quickly determined that Kenneth had a tumour, immediately put him on a plane to Montreal and, within days, a neurosurgeon operated on his back and removed the tumour.

Had the tumour stayed on his spine for even a few more days, he apparently could have died or been paralyzed. In the operation doctors cut through all the muscles in Kenneth’s back, leaving him unable to work for six months. Now he has only partial use of his back and gets strains when hunting.

Kenneth, who is the director of community services for the Waskaganish First Nation, was left deeply upset “It’s not right what they did. I was very shocked, very angry,” he said. “That’s the way health services are run here. It’s crazy.”

Last May, Kenneth filed a $153,600 lawsuit against Dr. Nelson and the Cree Health Board atthe Quebec Superior Court It wasn’t an easy decision, he said. “One of the reasons I’m going so far with this is that this kind of health system has to stop. It’s not very easy for a Cree to sue Crees. I had to think about it a lot.”

But he said he hopes a lawsuit will help bring the problems into the open, and other residents support him. “My case is not the only one. There are dozens of them.”

Dr. Nelson and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

James Bobbish took over as chairman of the Health Board after Kenneth’s ordeal. “It was a doctor-patient thing,” he said of the case. “He (Dr. Nelson) just happened to be attached to our organization at the time… I guess in any medical case, the first thing is examination of the patient,” he added.

James said the Health Board has now started to review the quality of its services in earnest. Until recently, he said financial problems, possible budget cuts and internal administrative turmoil didn’t leave much time for reviewing how and which services are delivered to the people.

“We’re at the end of that turmoil in the organization,” he said.

“Now we’ll be looking more at improving quality of service.”