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Fighting for his life

Baker Lake teen rings the bell after being declared cancer free
Desmond Jr. Kreelak is seen here during a severe and life-threatening nosebleed. Photo courtesy of Sanerk Kreelak

For a moment, Desmond Jr. Kreelak felt himself slipping away in his battle through cancer.

“I didn’t want to give up, but I wanted to give up at the same time, because I just wanted to be out of the pain,” recalled the 15-year-old Baker Lake student. “I just closed my eyes and I started to feel my body starting to shut down.”

His chemotherapy treatments for a cancer in his midsection caused prolonged and life-threatening nosebleeds.

Hospitalized for an uncontrollable nosebleed, Desmond Jr. was losing strength.

“I felt like I was going to fade away,” he said. “There was so much blood lost. It was just so scary for me.”

His nose had first started bleeding in the apartment he was staying in close to the hospital with his mother, Sanaaq Kreelak.

Desmond Jr. didn’t want to go to the hospital at first, hoping to stifle the bleed himself.

“It kept going through the Kleenex,” he said. “There was just so much blood. I didn’t want to go to the hospital, so I would try to stop it by myself.”

Finally, he agreed to his mother’s pleas and an ambulance took him to the hospital, where he was immediately surrounded by nurses and doctors.

“I lost so much blood that my body couldn’t even move anymore,” recalled Desmond Jr.

The medical professionals had to put a ‘rhino rocket’ up his nose, a deep tissue to mitigate bleeds. Desmond Jr. remembers the overwhelming pain and pulling it out.

“I was just screaming in pain and they gave me some morphine or oxygen to calm me down,” he said. “They put another rhino rocket up my nose. It was just so painful and uncomfortable.”

The bleed was controlled that night, but a couple days later in the hospital room, it started again. That’s when Desmond Jr. had a flash before his eyes.

“I was in a coma I think for a couple hours, because I couldn’t feel anything,” he said. “I couldn’t move. I just saw something. It was just a little light. I started going to it. I felt like I was walking toward the light but the light was so small. I felt like I couldn’t get into it. I tried my best to get into it. It felt like I was running to it, but I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Nosebleeds weren’t the only effect of the chemotherapy, which was administered through a ‘port’ surgically placed in his chest.

Desmond Jr. said the only thing that can describe his battle with cancer is “pain and torture.”

At one point, his liver was bloated, making him uncomfortable and affecting his mood.

“I was just so mad at the doctors and nurses,” he remembers. “Every time they would come check up on me, I would be rude or not say anything to them … It was just so hard at that time, especially because I missed home.”

Music to a father’s ears

Desmond Jr. has a penchant for gritting his teeth through pain.

In summer 2021, his abdomen was bothering him to an increasing extent.

“It was getting more and more painful each day,” he said.

“I couldn’t do my favourite activities like hunting, berry picking or just being out. I couldn’t do any of those. I would just stay home. I didn’t tell anyone about my pain for a couple months, so I would just stay home, be on my phone and wait for the pain to stop.”

But the pain didn’t stop, and in September, he went to the health centre. They immediately sent him to Winnipeg for a CT scan, which found a tumour that was removed Sept. 16.

That began his stay in Winnipeg for chemotherapy treatments, until he finally rung the bell to signify being cancer free March 15.

For father Desmond Sr. Kreelak, that was the best sound he’s ever heard.

“To hear that bell,” choked out the emotional father. “Music to the ears. The best sound in the world is right there.”

Desmond Jr. had two minor appointments left, but his chemotherapy was over and he is due to head home to Baker Lake in April.

“He’s a strong boy,” said the older Desmond. “He tried to give up but he kept going.”

He’ll never forget that bell.

“He came out with my father-in-law, mother-in-law and my parents. They flew all the way here just to witness him ringing the bell. The best sound in the world is right there when he rings the bell.”

Just one wish

“I feel so happy,” said Desmond Jr. about being at the end of his battle.

Now he’s on the road to getting his strength back. Seeing him lose that was one of the toughest parts of the journey, said Sanaaq.

“After his chemo treatments, the medication is so strong that he would just lie in bed for two or three days and have no energy to really do anything,” remembers Sanaaq.

And when he was nearly losing his life to a nosebleed, an ask from medical staff became all too real in the situation’s cold reality.

“He couldn’t stop nose bleeding, so they asked me to sign a form if I want him to be revived, because they knew that he was going to go,” she remembers. “But they managed to stop the bleeding.”

She’s so thankful he didn’t make it into that light.

“We’re so happy,” said Sanaaq. “We’re so proud of him. He’s such a strong young boy that didn’t give up.”

His strength is coming back, and he has one big wish when he gets home.

“My grandpa taught me hunting at a very young age,” said Desmond Jr. “Last year, April, my grandpa bought me an ATV for hunting. When I go back home, he’s going to buy me a snowmobile for hunting. He asked me, ‘What’s your biggest dream of all?’ And I said to catch the biggest grizzly bear in Nunavut. So when I go back home, we’re going to try to go on a bear hunt and catch a monster bear for me. I just can’t wait.”

Shockwave of inspiration and gratefulness

The weather is perfect for his son to get home and get outside, said Desmond Sr.

“We’re all very happy and relieved,” he said. “There’s a big celebration waiting to happen as soon as we get home for Jr. I’m sure he inspired quite a few of the kids his age, and not only his age, he inspired me in life to keep marching forward.”

Desmond’s father thanked the doctors in Winnipeg and everyone who sent prayers.

“Without that, I think we would have lost our boy,” said Desmond Sr.

Sanaaq said the whole family is grateful for all the support they’ve received.

“We were getting a lot of support all over Nunavut, not only Nunavut, but everywhere,” she said. “All over the world, we were getting support, and we’re really thankful for each and everyone who supported us in any way.”

She was especially grateful for his classmates, teacher and principal at Jonah Amitnaaq Secondary School who always make him smile.

For anyone going through what Desmond Jr. just did, he says to keep your head up.

“Tomorrow is a better day than today, so just keep going for tomorrow,” he said.

Desmond Jr. Kreelak receives his last chemotherapy treatment. He was declared cancer free March 15. Photo courtesy of Sanerk Kreelak ᑎᔅᒪᓐ ᕿᓚᒃ ᓄᑲᖅᖠᖅ ᑭᖑᓪᓕᖅᐹᒃᑯᑦ ᐃᒻᒥᖅᑐᖅᑕᐅᔪᖅ. ᑳᓐᓱᖃᕈᓐᓃᕐᓂᕋᖅᑕᐅᓚᐅᖅᑐᖅ ᒫᑦᓯ 15-ᒥ.
Desmond Jr. Kreelak ringing the bell to be officially declared cancer free was music to the ears of his father. Photo courtesy of Sanaaq Kreelak ᑎᔅᒪᓐ ᕿᓚᒃ ᓄᑲᖅᖠᖅ ᓂᑉᓕᖅᑎᑦᑎᔪᖅ ᓯᕙᓂᕈᑎᒥᒃ ᓇᓗᓇᐃᖅᓯᑉᓗᓂ ᑳᓐᓱᖃᕈᓐᓃᕐᓂᕐᒥᓄᑦ ᐊᑖᑕᖓᑕ ᓯᕙᓂᖅᑐᖅ ᑐᓴᕐᓂᕆᑦᑎᐊᓚᐅᖅᑕᖓ.