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Man dies alone during blackout

Fought bravely after losing limbs. Parents frantically tried to reach him

Toronto Star - August 17, 2003
by Moira Welsh

Two years ago, electricity robbed Lewis Wheelan of his two legs and his right arm. On Friday, the lack of it may have taken his life.

Wheelan, who survived 7,200 volts of electricity while working as a summer student for a Great Lakes Power contractor near Sault Ste. Marie, was found in his North York apartment Friday afternoon — alone and dead — in the middle of North America's biggest power blackout.

"He was doing so well, he was finally accepting his new body and making plans to move ahead," said his father, Bob Wheelan, from his home east of the Sault. "That's why his death came as such a surprise."

When the Wheelans realized on Friday morning that most of Toronto was still without power after Thursday's blackout, they immediately thought of their 22-year-old son, his skin unable to breathe because of extensive grafting to cover his deep burns. His body required constant air conditioning to keep it from overheating. The power was still off when emergency crews arrived at his apartment, near Bayview Ave. and Finch Ave. E., at about 3 p.m. Friday.

An autopsy performed yesterday did not show any obvious signs of trauma, said Detective Constable Jeff Allington.

Wheelan took a number of different medications and the coroner's office will do toxicology tests to see what kind of drugs were in Wheelan's system in the "off chance that in the dark he might have grabbed the wrong ones." The coroner will also perform a test on the young man's brain to see if he died from overheating, Allington said.

His body was discovered by his attendant just minutes before paramedics arrived. He was lying on his beloved black leather couch, which, he liked to brag, came complete with cup holders and a reclining chair. Wheelan watched many an Edmonton Oilers game on that couch.

Wheelan's apartment was paid for by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, which controlled his medical care and rehabilitation through its Seriously Injured Workers Program.

The WSIB also paid for the attendant who visited Wheelan to help him with bathing, cleaning his apartment and driving around town in the wheelchair-equipped van that he took possession of just one week ago.

His mother, Melanie, said when she couldn't reach Wheelan's attendant by cellphone due to the power outage, she called his WSIB caseworker at 9:30 a.m. Friday. When there was no answer, she left a voice-mail message asking that someone check on her son immediately.

"I said we were worried because we hadn't been able to reach Lewis. The WSIB knows his medical problems," she said.

Once she learned that the WSIB office in Toronto had closed because of the blackout, Melanie Wheelan said she called a Thunder Bay number and asked for help, but was told there was no way to reach anyone in Toronto, not even in the case of an emergency.

"Lewis' needs were very specific," his father said. "The WSIB knew that, so if there was a full power blackout, wouldn't they have known to check on him sooner than they did?"

It's unclear whether the caseworker tried to make contact earlier. No one from the WSIB could be reached for comment yesterday.

His parents frantically tried to contact other people in Toronto who could check on Wheelan and eventually connected with someone from his Toronto church, who went to his building and got no response after knocking on his door. After checking on his van and finding that it was still parked, she returned to the apartment. By that time, paramedics had arrived.

In the final two years of his life, Wheelan spoke of electricity with a bitter measure of hatred and respect.

"Technology gave us a lot of freedom," he would say, "but look what it can take away."

It took life as he knew it.

At the time of his accident in May, 2001, Wheelan was going into his second year in economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. He was a high-school jock, an outdoorsman who could canoe across a lake and camp for days on his own without a worry.

If he harboured a bitterness toward technology, he also had a reservoir of anger for the people whose actions led to his accident.

He was on the second day of a $10-an-hour summer job for a contractor who was assigned to cut the thick trees that had grown up close to the hydro lines owned by Great Lakes Power, a subsidiary of Brascan. A tree broke through a hydro line, which swung down and jolted Wheelan's body with 7,200 volts of power.

Last year, the Star detailed Wheelan's injuries and the series of safety infractions that led to his accident. When Ontario's labour ministry completed its investigation, it laid charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against Great Lakes, two of its directors, its former CEO, the contractor and an employee.

There was a huge outpouring of public sympathy for Wheelan. After ignoring the family's request for financial support, Great Lakes Power agreed to give Wheelan some money, and a few months ago gave him a "gift" of $500,000.

A fundraiser was held in Sault Ste. Marie and the money from that event, along with donations to his new trust fund, helped him purchase the van, giving him a semblance of freedom.

A few weeks ago, he used part of the money from Great Lakes to buy a piece of land beside his parents' cottage, outside the Sault, and he was talking with his dad about plans to build his own home on the land. He took some liberal arts courses at York University's Glendon College and was making plans to apply for its economics program.

"Lewis had turned the corner," said family friend Rhonda Cohen. "I remember the first time he went to visit Glendon a year ago, he wouldn't get out of the van. He said, `I'm afraid, I can't do this.' But he'd come so far."

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