Honour walk held for Indigenous organ donor

Honour walk held for Indigenous organ donor

It was an honour walk unlike many others.

More than 40 Indigenous family members from both Atikamekw and Cree Nations in northern Quebec, along with dozens of others, lined the halls of the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montreal (CHUM) in April.

There were drums and prayers and songs.

The group was there to accompany and honour Forrest Boivin Coonishish, on his way to carry out his last wish: to donate whatever organs he could to others.

"We purified his body, we prayed for him before beginning the honour walk. Everything was in honour of Forrest, because it was really an honourable thing he was doing," said Rykko Bellemare, Coonishish's nephew.

An honour walk (or hero walk) is a ceremonial event to commemorate a patient whose organs are being donated. Family members and hospital staff line the corridors of the facility as the donor is wheeled into the operating room.

submitted by Rykko Bellemare
submitted by Rykko Bellemare

It was Bellemare who stayed with Coonishish almost 24-hours a day between April 9, when the 44-year-old was declared brain dead after a stroke, and April 13, when his organs were removed.

Bellemare has nothing but praise for hospital staff, both in Trois-Rivières, Que., where Coonishish was first sent after his stroke, and at the CHUM in Montreal, where doctors removed his heart, lungs and kidneys for transplants that helped four people.

"The hospital personnel really listened and responded to our wishes. They were very human," said Bellemare referring to staff in Trois-Rivières, which is about a 3.5 hour drive south of Coonishish's home community of Wemontaci.

Indigenous ceremony in hospital

In Montreal, at the CHUM, it was a similar experience, said Bellemare.

"They allowed us to purify his body. They allowed us to bring the drum. They allowed our culture into the hospital," said an emotional Bellemare, who said Coonishish was the closest person he had to a father.

Coonishish was half-Atikamekw and half-Cree, an experienced hunter, and a deeply spiritual person who was close to both sides of his culture, said Bellemare.

"He accompanied my first steps to becoming a man. He was my mentor. We did my walking out ceremony together," said Bellemare referring to a right of passage in some Indigenous cultures for young children marking their first encounter with nature.

submitted by Rykko Bellemare
submitted by Rykko Bellemare

It was Coonishish who taught Bellemare how to hunt and how to offer tobacco after harvesting a moose, and so much more.

"It was symbolic for me to help him to take his last steps in this world. To thank him for being my mentor," said Bellemare.

Indigenous donors rare

Organ donation in Indigenous communities in Quebec is not common, according to Dr. Pierre Marsolais, a critical care physician with more than 25 years experience in internal medicine and organ donation in Quebec.

He is also the founder of the Mission du Dr. Marsolais, an organization which offers emotional and financial support, and accompanies the families of organ donors during and after the donation.

The organization paid for the transportation, lodging and meals for 44 members of Coonishish's family so they could go to Montreal for the honour walk and the surgery to remove his organs.

"We were surprised [by the number of people], but we were happy, as well," said Marsolais, adding that videos of the honour walk and the ceremony beforehand that were shared on social media were very touching.

"We can see how the family really supported and loved Forrest," he said, adding the mission also often helps make prints of a loved one's hand to help families in their grief, which they did for Coonishish's relatives.

"I think this event is making a bridge and is helping to rebuild confidence between First Nations and the rest of the population," he said, adding it will also help rebuild confidence in the health-care system.

Mission du Dr. Marsolais
Mission du Dr. Marsolais

Organ donation is something the family believes Coonishish had been planning for a few years before his stroke.

More than three years earlier, doctors had told Coonishish he had only a month to live, said Bellemare. After many years of struggles with substance abuse, Coonishish's liver was done. Bellemare also said that In the last months of his life, his uncle gave up most of his addictions.

"He was preparing his body in a way. He stopped smoking, he stopped doing drugs. He tried to drink less, but it was stronger than him," said Bellemare.

Recepient in Mistissini

Bellmare said that in the days after Coonishish died, a social media post helped his family make the connection that his lungs were donated to a person in Mistissini, Que. Bellemare said that in his last days, Coonishish talked a lot about wanting to return to Mistissini.

"He kept saying 'I want to return to Mistissini to go see my father,' but he ran out of time … we are all very moved to learn that his lungs were donated to a Mistissini woman."

Bellemare says the experience of helping his uncle donate his organs was difficult, but also very healing, adding it has helped him with his grief.

Transplant Quebec says there were 913 Quebecers waiting for an organ at the end of 2022.

Bellemare says he agreed to talk about Coonishish's story in the hopes that more Indigenous families will consider signing their donor card and telling their family about their wishes, like his uncle did.

"Forrest really opened a door that no one wanted to walk through. The fact that he did, I think there will be a lot of others who will want to follow," said Bellemare.