Cree mother living with a disability rejoices in newfound freedom

On a sunny September afternoon Cree mother Cari Kirkness decides to enjoy the last sweater-free days of summer by soaking up some sun outside her home in Winnipeg.

She moves from her backyard to her front yard taking in the views with a newfound easiness.

Up until this week, moving outside her home was a challenge because the young woman uses a wheelchair to get around, but thanks to some new home renovations that has changed.

“See smooth sailing,” Kirkness described to APTN News as she maneuvered her wheelchair down a ramp onto a concrete slab that now covers her backyard.

Patches of gravel and grass used to make up the front and back of the house making it difficult for Kirkness to move without the help of others. Because the ground worked against the tires on her wheelchair, she often found herself getting caught or stuck.

The project was years in the making.

Cree mother
Cari Kirkness and her mother Loretta get to sit outside their home for the first time now that recent renovations make it more accessible for the 32-year-old to get around. Photo: Brittany Hobson/APTN.

Kirkness lost her legs and an arm in 2017 after contracting a rare illness.

She ended up in hospital with what she thought was the common flu.

Doctors later told the family she was dealing with a flesh-eating disease caused by an invasive bacteria known as Group A Streptococcus – a form of strep throat.

“I’d hoped it was an infection but I knew it was going to be amputation because by that time you could see the infection spread,” recalled Kirkness’ mother Loretta Kirkness.

Kirkness lost her arm first. When the infection spread doctors put her in a medically-induced coma where she remained for two weeks. During this time, it spread to her legs. Doctors told Loretta they would have to amputate both her legs if Kirkness was to survive.

“[The doctor] said I’ll give you 15 minutes to decide and I said I don’t need 15 minutes. Save her,” said Loretta.

When Kirkness came out of a coma her parents told her doctors had to remove her legs.

The mother-of-two chose to be positive about the situation. Despite everything she was happy to pull through for her young boys.

“It was mainly about my sons that’s all I think about. I’m here for my babies. I fought to be here with them and for them,” said Kirkness.

Kirkness remained in hospital for five months before moving into a new home with her parents, her sons and her siblings.

The home had to be renovated to accommodate Kirkness and her wheelchair.

Most recently Loretta decided to tackle outside the home but soon realized she was no landscaper and was perhaps in over head.

The project sat unfinished until a recent accident prompted Loretta to seek help.

Kirkness attempted to move around in the backyard by herself about three weeks ago. As she was moving her wheelchair through the gravel one of the wheels got stuck and began spinning. The motion propelled her forward where she crashed into the corner of their barbeque and smashed her chest.

After this, Loretta decided to reach out to leadership in the family’s home community Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) to see if could provide some assistance.

Onekanew Christian Sinclair visited the family and after seeing the limitations Kirkness was facing he reached out to some contacts.

“It’s about humanity and doing the right thing for people in general whether they are OCN members or non-members it’s about helping each other and doing what’s right from the bottom of our hearts as human beings,” Sinclair told APTN.

The community has a partnership with a Winnipeg construction company so Sinclair reached out to them to see if they could make some suggestions.

The group decided to complete the renovations free of charge.

Loretta says the finished project is everything she envisioned for her daughter.

For Kirkness it’s simply about one thing – independence.

“I feel free. I don’t have to wait on somebody to come help me now,” she said with a smile on her face.

The community is now in the process of fundraising for a new accessible van for the family and will be launching an online fundraiser later this month to help cover the costs.

Sinclair says the band is prepared to cover a portion of the costs, he estimates it will be $85,000, but will need help to cover the rest.

Reporter / Winnipeg

Brittany joined the APTN news team in October 2016. She is Ojibway and a member of the Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba. Before coming to APTN, she graduated with a joint degree in communications from the University of Winnipeg and Red River College.