A Délı̨nę artist, photographer and former band councillor is recovering from emergency surgery after doctors in Yellowknife discovered a tumour the size of a soda can in his colon.
Morris Neyelle, 71, believes he nearly died because his local health centre failed to diagnose the problem. He wonders whether he was treated like a second-class citizen.
“Why have I been treated this way? Is it because I’m an Aboriginal person? That’s the question I ask myself,” he said.
Délı̨nę, a community of just over 500 people northwest of Yellowknife, is a 90-minute flight away from the N.W.T. capital.
Neyelle ended up arranging his own flight from Délı̨nę to Yellowknife for treatment after weeks of stomach pain. He says health centre staff in Délı̨nę declined to medevac him in time.
Now, Neyelle is calling for better cancer screening at local health centres.
“If it wasn’t for myself, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Neyelle told CBC News that he’d gone to the Dora Gully Health Centre in Délı̨nę multiple times for abdominal pain.
“The week before I came [to Yellowknife], I noticed my stomach was burning like acid so I kept going to the nurse,” he said. “I said, ‘The pain is awful. I need to get out of here to get checked’ but they didn’t know what to do so they gave me Tylenol.”
Neyelle said he received confirmation while still in Délı̨nę that he could meet with a doctor in Inuvik or Yellowkife a week and a half later, but decided he couldn’t wait that long. He was also unsure about visiting Inuvik, which would have required a trip on a commercial plane and an overnight stay in Norman Wells.
“That awful pain, I know my limits,” he said. “It was brutal, the burning pain up in my stomach.”
Neyelle and his wife ruled out driving the ice road to Yellowknife — a roughly 20-hour trip — due to his condition.
Instead, he spent $1,000 to get on a charter flight to Yellowknife on Feb. 25 and went directly to the Stanton Territorial Hospital’s emergency room. He was taken into surgery the next morning.
“When I got here, the doctor said, ‘If you stayed another five more days to go to Inuvik, you wouldn’t have made it, you would have died right there,'” Neyelle said from his hospital bed in Yellowknife.
He said doctors told him they found a large tumour in his colon. They also said it could have been present for up to five years, he said.
“[The Yellowknife doctor] said I need to take it out right now because it’s going to burst,” he said. “My wife was crying.”
Neyelle also said he found out that he’s lost 52 pounds since December.
Health officials to determine ‘appropriate next steps’
The Northwest Territories Health and Social Services Authority declined to speak to CBC about this story, citing patient privacy, despite a waiver signed by Neyelle authorizing them to speak about his case.
Spokesperson David Maguire said in an email they would “be following up directly with this individual to determine appropriate next steps for review of the concerns they have raised.”
Neyelle wonders whether his cancer is connected to his experiences working at the Port Radium uranium mine in 1978. The mine opened in 1929 and operated for decades, employing many people from Délı̨nę.
A national report examining the health legacy of that mine came out in 2005. It concluded there was no scientific link between cancer rates in Délı̨nę and the Port Radium mine.
However, it found that the mine had left a considerable legacy of “fear and anxiety” about health in the community.
Neyelle also believes his pain was not taken as seriously by health care workers because he’s Indigenous.
“It’s not right. We should be treated equally as everybody else,” he said.
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