PhotoSensitive Picture Change : Lewis Wheelan
Steve Russell - Staff Photographer - @RussellPhotos
He sat facing the window, his face in his hand, he was weeping.
I put down my camera and put my hand on his shoulder and let him cry.
It was my first visit with Lewis Wheelan, a triple amputee at Sunnybrook Hospital, I would follow him for six months along with reporter Moira Welsh.
After Lewis had composed himself, I sat down beside him and explained that if that happened it again I would photograph it. These were things I was just beginning to talk to him about when he broke down.
Maybe I didn't take the picture that day because I saw in Lewis myself 15 years earlier. A student-athlete who was working a crappy summer job in Northern Ontario. The difference was Lewis' summer job changed his life forever.
On his second day of work clearing brush from under hydro lines, he was injured when a tree was cut nearby hitting a power line, landing on him and arcing three times hitting him with 7,200 volts and setting the brush around him on fire. The injuries left Lewis with severe burns and he had three limbs amputated.
After that first meeting Lewis, I hung out with him whenever my schedule allowed it, sometimes taking pictures sometimes watching a hockey game.
The pivotal moment in the image I submitted for the Photosensitive Picture Change project happened a couple months later.
Lewis was eager to get prosthetic legs and begin to try to walk again. In several fittings he found that the legs never really fit right and were too painful to wear. In the picture Lewis decides that after a painful session with a prosthetic technician at Sunnybrooke Hospital he won't try to walk anymore.
While dejected in the image, the choice Lewis made that day helped him overall. His mood changed, he was less angry and more focused on his future.
Physically he was facing huge challenges, financially the challenges were just as formidable.
Lewis had been earning $10 per hour and according to Workplace Safety and Insurance Board rules Lewis could expect $288 a week, a little more than $14,995 a year, until he turns 65 from the agency. A diligent WSIB caseworker found a loop hole to get that amount raised to $720 a week. However any work that he might do would be would be deducted from that benefit.
After the story ran, anchored by the picture of Lewis, the Ministry of Labour charged three directors of Great Lakes Power and the corporation's former chief executive officer under Section 32 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
Three others, the contractor who hired Lewis, a crewman, a Great Lakes Power supervisor and the Great Lakes corporation were also charged with a slew of provincial safety infractions.
Great Lakes originally didn't respond to the Wheelan family's request for financial aid. The public outrage that followed the Toronto Star story that detailed the safety mistakes that led to the accident and the life challenges that Lewis faced did. After months of negotiations, Wheelan accepted the offer from Great Lakes for a lump sum payment of at least $500,000. The payout was considered a gift so it would not affect his WSIB benefits.
In a tragic twist Lewis Wheelan passed away during the great blackout in 2003.
Because of the amount of skin grafts Lewis could not sweat. When the blackout occured Lewis' air conditioning turned off and he could not exit his apartment.
After death, Lewis still contributed, his van was donated to Brookwood House, his wheelchair was donated as well.
Personally and professionally I think about those days I spent with Lewis a lot. I think of that first meeting we had. I never question my decision to put down the camera that day.
Lewis Wheelan's family is comforted prior to his funeral at Zion Lutherian Church in Sault Ste Marie, August 20, 2003. Lewis Wheelan survived a horrible workplace accident in the summer of 2001, on August 15, 2003 Lewis was discovered dead in his apartment in Toronto during a large blackout.
Lewis Wheelan's parents Bob and Melanie pose on the dock of their home on Bass Lake after Lewis's funeral at Zion Lutheran Church in Sault Ste Marie, August 20, 2003. Lewis had purchased the property next to his parents' home and was going to adapt the property to his wheelchair. Lewis's family hopes to spread his ashes on the hills directly across from their home, he spent a lot of time exploring up there.
Lewis's sister Sarah remembers, "When Lewis was first injured, and then through nearly a year in the hospital, surgeries, rehab, navigating the workers’ compensation system, the Ministry of Labour’s prosecution, all on top of Lewis’ grief and trauma, as well as our own, my family and I felt completely alone and unequipped to deal with all of it. There was no place for us to turn in our darkest hour; no one who truly understood. Then, just when we were starting to think we were beginning to cope and create a new ‘normal’, Lewis died. And we lost him again."
Sarah found comfort and understanding and is now the communications co-ordinator of Threads for Life, a national charity providing peer support programs and services to families affected by workplace injury, illness or death.
"Through Threads of Life, I met others who had experienced similar, work-related tragedy. No one understands like someone else who has walked a similar path. No one else understands like another sister who has lost a brother, as is the case for a parent, widow, grandparent, son or daughter. Sharing my own story publicly through Threads of Life’s national speakers bureau helped me to work through my own grief while spreading the message of prevention," says Wheelan.
The new exhibition produced by PhotoSensitive, Picture Change, will feature one photo from over 100 of the top Canadian photographers including several Toronto Star journalists. The exhibit is a body of work highlighting the way that photography can make a positive change in the world. It could be a photo that inspired action among the public, one that helped bring about a change in law or one that simply forced its viewers to re-think their preconceived ideas. The exhibit opens Tuesday July 16th at 11 am at 200 Bay Street, at the Royal Bank Plaza Terrace.