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A life lost on the streets

Leah Isaac died in her Stratford Hotel room on August 26, 2010. She was 38 years old. When she died, Leah's 10-year-old daughter Tiana-Lee Lucas was beside her.

Leah Isaac died in her Stratford Hotel room on August 26, 2010.

She was 38 years old.

When she died, Leah’s 10-year-old daughter Tiana-Lee Lucas was beside her.

The night before, they’d gone to the movies.

Leah talked to her sister Margaret Isaac the next day and said she wasn’t feeling well.

It was their last conversation.

Leah lived on the streets of Whitehorse for more than 20 years.

She was hooked on booze, prescription drugs and sometimes, harder stuff.

She was one of the city’s “regulars”- until this summer, when pneumonia took its toll.

“I didn’t realize she was that sick,” said Margaret.

No one did.

Dr. Jeff Turnbull has seen far too many cases like Leah’s.

Working at Ottawa General Hospital, the head of the Canadian Medical Association saw a steady flow of homeless regulars.

They’d show up with pneumonia, and Turnbull would prescribe antibiotics.

“But they have no money, no drug plan, they don’t even have an address,” he said in a previous interview.

The prescriptions weren’t filled.

The next day, the patients would come back sicker.

Turnbull would write another prescription he knew wouldn’t be filled.

Kicked out of the homeless shelter, along with everyone else, from 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., patients spent all day in the cold.

They’d sit in coffee shops until they were moved along.

Next, they’d try their luck at the local mall.

Eventually the patient would get so sick they’d have to be hospitalized.

Then, haunted by addictions, they’d check themselves out before they were better.

The cycle continues.

Each so-called regular cost the hospital hundreds of thousands of dollars, until nine years ago, when Turnbull changed everything.

He set up homeless shelters that run as clinics with nurses, doctors, a medical detox and even vet care for the down-and-out clients and their pets.

He gives the hardcore alcoholics a few ounces of booze every hour, eliminating the severe binging cycle.

And there are street nurses who track down patients in alleys and under bridges to make sure they’re taking their meds.

Turnbull’s shelters save Ottawa’s health-care system more than $3.5 million a year.

With nothing similar in Whitehorse, Leah didn’t manage to break her cycle of addiction.

Three to four regulars die in Whitehorse every year, said Yukon Medical Association president Rao Tadepalli.

It usually happens without a ripple.

There’s typically nothing in the news, he said.

Leah’s death was no exception - until her sister Margaret decided to change that.

“I wanted to talk about my sister to make people aware we need to start helping people with addictions,” she said.

Leah tried to get help so many times, said Margaret.

She even went to a family treatment centre in BC with Tiana-Lee and her older son Jordan Isaac.

But she didn’t last.

Leah left treatment, started drinking and ended up on the streets in an unfamiliar city.

Her mom, Lucy Carriere, bought her a bus ticket back to Whitehorse.

Leah wound up back on familiar streets.

When they were little, Margaret and Leah created a secret language called Flim Flom.

At night, when they were supposed to be sleeping, they’d cough in code, communicating secretly.

Margaret also remembers how much her sister loved to swim.

And how they ate ice cream in the back of a pickup in Pelly one day and Leah ate hers so fast. Margaret teased her about it, until Leah grabbed Margaret’s half-eaten cone and finished that one too.

Those were the good times.

But there were also bad.

“There was a lot of abuse,” said Margaret.

And it took its toll on both sisters.

Leah started drinking in her early teens.

“And it got worse over the years,” said Margaret.

Then, after hurting her back, Leah got hooked on prescription drugs.

She’d go from clinic to clinic in Whitehorse getting prescriptions.

“I don’t know how she got so many pills,” said her mom.

“There should be some way for doctors to check and see what prescriptions someone already has,” said Margaret.

BC has a system called PharmaNet that tracks patients’ prescriptions.

There is nothing similar in the Yukon.

Then there are the illegal drugs.

“All these drug dealers who drive fancy vehicles and have a good life,” said Margaret. “And then people like my sister lose everything to them and struggle so much.”

Three days before she died, a doctor prescribed Leah a puffer.

“So they knew something was wrong with her lungs,” she said.

“But I had no idea it was so serious.”

Leah’s daughter thought her mom had just lost consciousness.

Tiana-Lee’s grandmother Lucy raised her most of the time.

“But she always wanted to be with her mom,” said Margaret.

“She was always saying, ‘Mom, please don’t leave me.’”

After Leah died, Tiana-Lee wrote her mom a note.

“Mom, I know you’re with Jesus now,” it read.

“But I thought you said you’d never leave me.”

Growing up in a small community like Pelly isn’t easy, said Margaret, who’s watching Leah’s son start to drink.

“There’s a lot of peer pressure in Pelly,” she said.

“And lots of young people drink.”

There are also drug dealers, said Lucy.

But people are afraid to talk about them.

“The government should go after the drug dealers in the community,” she said.

“And if people find out their kids are taking drugs, they should look for some kind of support.

“I wish I’d done that for Leah.”

Christmas will be especially hard, said Lucy.

Last year, Leah came home and the family went snowmobiling.

“She was always happy,” said Lucy.

“She had a good spirit.”

Leah wanted to get a house in Pelly, but had trouble with the First Nation government.

“We need more support in these small communities,” said Lucy.

On Mother’s Day this year, Leah gave her mom a wooden plaque that read:

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go.

“Some stay for awhile and leave footprints in our hearts - and we are never, ever the same.”

If you feel down, look at this, Leah told her mom at the time.

Now, Lucy carries it close to her heart.

And Margaret has quit drinking.

“I wanted to quit because my sister couldn’t,” she said.

And then the tears came.

Contact Genesee Keevil at