May 13, 2016
Story by Sara Warr; Photo by Sarah Zacharais
Almost two-years-old, Zacky Zacharais is a happy well-tempered kid, adored by his loving parents.
“He’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” says mom, Sarah Zacharais. “A lot of people may view our lives as being very difficult, but we couldn’t be happier - even with the challenges that have presented themselves.”
The Fort McMurray boy was born with a variety of health issues, requiring him to have a feeding tube and a tracheotomy to help him breathe. The family relies on home care services through Alberta Health Services (AHS) to help them manage Zacky’s care overnight and twice a week for respite.
With a respite visit scheduled for Tuesday, May 3, Sarah Zacharais decided to go to a yoga class. Wildfires had been burning near Fort McMurray, but didn’t appear to be an immediate concern for most residents that morning.
“While I was on my way home, my respite nurse called saying her daughter’s daycare was being evacuated,” Sarah recalls. “It was then I realized that I needed to start packing all Zacky’s medical supplies immediately and get out.”
The Zacharaises were among 300 to 400 home care clients in Fort McMurray and area who, along with the rest of the city, were forced to flee their homes as wildfires gained momentum.
Clinical coordinator for local home care services, Shannen Sinclair, returned from lunch surprised to find flames about two blocks behind her office building. While a mandatory evacuation had yet to be ordered, Sinclair knew they needed to prepare.
“Adult Day Program staff across the field at the YMCA got everyone rounded up and picked up,” says Sinclair. “I was also worried about our home care clients in the community, and our staff.”
The gravity of the situation hit her during an emotional call from one of her home care nurses.
“She had finished up a downtown visit and was trying to get back uptown to pick up her child. The school had called - they were evacuating and she needed to get to him, but the traffic was so heavy that she couldn’t.”
In the midst of ensuring all staff had left their building, Sinclair got in touch with her own son, 27 year-old Jesse Laliberte, who drove to the school, picked up the young boy and reunited him with his mom. Sinclair then forwarded the main home care phone line to her cell and managed to direct some clients to the proper supports as she headed home to prepare her own family to leave.
“Shortly after, it became a mandatory evacuation. Everyone was trying to get out,” says Sinclair. “We actually sat in our driveway for three hours because traffic was so heavy we couldn’t get out.”
Sarah Zacharais and her husband Zack headed north with Zacky and his medical supplies. Highway 63 south had closed due to the blaze. After a long trek, the family arrived at a work camp that Zack’s employer runs. After hearing that Highway 63 had re-opened, the family headed out again in the hopes of getting to Edmonton.
“We headed south but the highway was closed just a little ways north of town,” says Sarah. “We waited three or four hours and things were only getting worse. I started panicking - with Zacky’s tracheotomy, the smoke was starting to affect him.”
They turned around and headed towards the Shell Albian Sands site, where a friend had told them flights were being arranged by the company.
“After a really long day of driving around, and running out of gas, and not knowing what to do, we finally got on a flight,” Sarah says. “As soon as we landed, there were all sorts of strollers, car seats, diapers – we had a good cry and thanked them immensely.”
Once Sinclair and her family had arrived in Leduc, after a 12 hour drive in bumper to bumper traffic, she got in touch with others on the North Zone seniors health team. The group worked day and night to reach out to all of their Fort McMurray home care clients.
“People were grateful that we were calling to make sure they were okay,” she recalls. ”We have acute care clients with post-op surgical needs, clients with dementia. They went all over the place - Lac La Biche, Edmonton, Firebag. Some of the residents at the seniors’ lodge also receive home care. One of our staff members evacuated along with them and stayed with them for three days until they ended up in Edmonton.”
Sinclair says by that Friday morning, staff had connected with everyone. For younger clients like Zacky, staff put parents in touch with Ronald McDonald House and the Edmonton home care team.
While Zacky was admitted to the Stollery Children’s Hospital for respiratory problems, his parents were among the other Fort McMurray families who settled in at the Ronald McDonald House. Home care is now working to lineup respite and overnight care when Zacky is discharged, so that Sarah and Zach can focus on reorganizing their lives.
“Last year we spent three months at the Stollery and Ronald McDonald House,” Sarah explains. “It was quite the ordeal, but it helped us understand that our living situation isn’t the most important thing compared to knowing that your child is safe.” Both Sinclair and the Zacharaises say they have been overwhelmed with the support they’ve received from complete strangers.
“The response everywhere has been amazing,” says Sinclair. “We took Highway 881 through and there were people on the side of the road saying ‘you can stay with us, we have gas for you.’ It’s incredible what people do to look out for each other in a crisis.”