A young Sto:lo man who died while in the care of Fraser Health four years ago was the focus of a traditional healing ceremony recently at Chilliwack General Hospital.
A memorial plaque and a metal artwork were unveiled at CGH on Sept. 26 to honour the late Keegan Combes, a high school grad, and chess player from Skwah First Nation, who lived with developmental disabilities.
But the legacy Combes is leaving behind is not just the upshot of the ceremony, plaque or artwork.
The true lasting legacy of this young man will be seen in the efforts being undertaken now to root out and eradicate systemic racism in the delivery of health care services.
Combes ended up at the Chilliwack ER in September 2015 suffering from an undiagnosed illness. He later passed away after being transferred to a Surrey hospital, but due to rules around privacy concerns and confidentiality of patients, Fraser Health officials cannot reveal the circumstances or details surrounding Combes’ death.
According to sources close to the family, there were missed opportunities for diagnosis and delays that were the result of racial discrimination on the part of hospital staff.
The In Memoriam plaque at CGH that bears the young man’s photo reads: “Keegan brought together Stólō and Coast Salish leaders to transform the health system from a sickness model to a wellness model of care. In Keegan’s memory, the Fraser Salish Health Caucus leadership will work with (Fraser Health) to transform the care provided to all.
“In his memory, we will work together to ensure that all peoples from all places and all races will be provided with the highest quality of care that is respectful of all cultures and beliefs.”
The Sept. 26 event ushered in “a new day to witness the beginning of healing past traumas through ceremony.”
It solidified the united pledge by Fraser Health and FNHA reps to make significant changes to the health care system.
“The unveiling of the new indigenous artwork at Chilliwack General Hospital, and the plaque honouring a young indigenous person named Keegan Combes, was meant to provide a space for all people to come together in Keegan’s memory, and work together to create a future that is culturally safe for all people,” according to Tasleem Juma, Fraser Health spokesperson.
Rhianna Millman, a community member, family member, caregiver and advocate, called the ceremony “incredibly beautiful.”
It brought together all levels of government, health leaders from Fraser Health and First Nations Health Authority, First Nations Health Council, Sto:lo Nation, the inclusion community and community members from across the Fraser Valley, with more than 175 in attendance for the outdoor ceremony at CGH.
Millman was the one who reached out to Doug Kelly, chair of the First Nations Health Council, and others i the community, to help share Keegan’s story.
Grand Chief Doug Kelly said they worked collaboratively to make the hospital ceremony happen.
In the end, the ceremonial event was “powerful, medicinal and healing,” Kelly said, partly because it will lead to systemic changes, but also because it was designed to allow profound healing and forgiveness by the family and community.
“Mistakes resulting in death are not easy to own – but the hospital owned their mistakes,” Kelly wrote in a post after attending the ceremony. “The Fraser Health Authority acknowledged systemic racism in healthcare and promised action to tackle and eradicate racism.”
The metal carving, and a plaque were unveiled and there promises to take action, and commitment to provide quality care for “all people from all races and all places.”
As well, a student scholarship is being set up by the First Nations Health Authority in Combes’ name.
The artwork now affixed to the outside wall of the hospital, titled the Healing Hands of Friendship, by artist Francis Horne Sr., “serves as a reminder to reach out to each other and lend a helping hand at all times with love, honour, respect and compassion,” Juma added. “The artwork acknowledges the traditional and unceded territory in the area, and echoes the importance of bridging the gap between health care providers and the community.”
So in that way, Keegan’s experiences are transforming in the way health officials will provide care.
Combes’ story needed to be told to ensure the system remains accountable, and that the tragedy can be used as a means to spur change, Millman said. He died as a result of delayed diagnosis because of discrimination from ER staff, she said, adding he was the child of a survivor of residential school and the sixties scoop, and he’d been in care as a result of inter-generational trauma.
“The loss of a loved one is never easy to get over. But the loss of a loved one as the result of discrimination is devastating.
But seeing the progress that’s been made, and all of the work that’s been done to try and change a broken system so no one else has to live this same experience again, is incredibly impactful,” Millman said.