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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 checks himself out in a mirror at Sunnybrook Hospital. The mirror the only one on the floor of the burn centre.


Lewis Wheelan catches up on the news at Sunnybrook Hospital.  Lewis Wheelan was injured in May 2001 in a workplace accident that claimed both his legs, one arm and some fingers on his hand. 


Lewis Wheelan dresses before preparing to leave Sunnybrook Hospital, February 27, 2002.  Lewis was moving to St. John's rehabilitation hospital. 


Lewis Wheelan takes a quiet break during a visit from his parents.


Lewis Wheelan works out at St. John's rehabilitation hospital with William Cachia, his physiotherapist.


Lewis Wheelan ends up back at Sunnybrook after getting a finger infection, March 6, 2002.  Occupational therapist Jeff Scott goes over a new splint made to support the finger.


Lewis Wheelan checks out, along with his parents, the apartment he will move into in Toronto, March 15, 2002.  After 10 monthes in Hospitals Lewis craves privacy that a hospital cannot provide.


Lewis Wheelan attends his Sociology class at York University in Toronto, February 27, 2003. 


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.





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Thank you for posting this story.
My heart goes to Wheelan's family.
God bless!

Thank you for retelling Lewis' story. It is a truly moving story and one that reminds us of the importance of work place safety. I hope his family and friends can find serenity in remembering the good times before the accident, and take comfort in knowing that he persevered after his terrible injury. May he rest in peace.

I remember reading the story about the accident that caused this young man's misery. However, I thought he had died. Suffice it to say, I am shocked to read this story and discover that he survived, but then passed away some time afterwards due to another set of circumstances that should NEVER have happened. Rest in peace, Lewis.

I remember the original story as well and was so saddened when I read that he passed away during the blackout.

It's also not right that there are a lot of inexperienced young people in potentially dangerous jobs who are only too eager to please their employer.

In Lewis's case, I'm glad his employer(s) were finally held accountable. Although it shouldn't have come without such a fight. It's also nice that his sister is now helping others going through what her family had to.

I cannot even imagine what this poor kid and his family went through. I admire him for fighting as long as he did, having the toughness to strive for more, to have his own apartment. He must have been quite a person. Thinking about him today.

Backup generator's for all people vulnerable to the same fate as Lewis. This has to be part of best practices I hope this change is made and the lack of foresight corrected.

Extremely touching. A very powerful story. I teared up. RIP to this courageous man.

I remember going to visit Lewis several times at St. John's Rehabilitation Centre. I remember our numerous telephone conversations and I am still touched by the little time that God gave us together. I remember so many other good memories in addition to the painful ones. I am so Blessed to have met Lewis and his memory lives forever.

Definitely should hold all employers accountable for workplace related injuries. I myself was injured in the workplace but didn't get a dime from WSIB because my employer (IBM) screwed me over. Glad he got at least some compensation from them. My heart bleeds for the victims whenever I hear of such tragedies which could have been avoided.

What a tragic, but moving story. I found myself tearing up. Thank you for sharing this.

I plan to visit this photo exhibition. Looking forward to it!

what? how did he die?

I brought this case before a group of 14 Asst. Deputy Ministers of Ontario discussing the need for assistive technologies for the disabled and standby power. Those who are on life support or special needs can expect ZERO from your utility and ZERO from your government. You are in the hands of those who care for you. Please Please develop a care group.

I remember this story. I was heartbroken then and still am now. I never knew Lewis or his family, but his story deeply touched me. I just thought about Lewis tonight, and am stunned to learn it's around the 10th anniversary of his death. He's such a courageous man. I remember reading some writings of Lewis's that a friend of his had published. Sadly, I did not keep them and wish I had, as his struggles and inspiring words were somehow universal to all people, despite everyone's different life situations. I lost a brother to a completely different type of tragedy, and know how tough it is to lose someone who is cherished. I'm hoping the Wheelans have tons of support from their friends and family. For whatever it's worth, they also have the support of strangers like me, who are touched by the story and are sending their support in spirit.

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