“It was as though I was breathing fire.”

This is how Canoe Lake Cree Nation member Leonard Opekokew described how he felt earlier this month while hospitalized with COVID-19. Opekokew, 65, tested positive Feb. 2 and, before the week was out, had developed such severe symptoms he has to spend the next 10 days under the watchful eye of health care professionals.

“I can understand now why people are dying like crazy (from COVID-19),” Opekokew explained.

The ordeal began for Opekokew Jan. 28.

“My head was splitting that day – I had such a bad headache I thought my head was going to crack open,” he said. “My body and my bones were kind of sore also, but I didn’t think of it being COVID at that time because, on Jan. 26, I had a tooth pulled. I thought this is what was causing my pain.”

Opekokew’s dentist prescribed Tylenol #3 for his pain.

“I was popping those pills to keep the pain down, but it wasn’t getting better – it was getting worse,” he said.

Eventually, Opekokew and his family visited the local clinic in Canoe Lake for a COVID-19 test. All eight members of the household tested positive for the virus, but Opekokew himself was the only one to be impacted so severely.

“We went home to isolate, but – before my isolation was over – I really got sick,” he stated. “This was on Feb. 8. I went back to the clinic and they sent me on to Meadow Lake and, from there, I was sent to the hospital in Saskatoon. It was so hard to breathe and, like I said, it felt like I was breathing fire.”

During his stay in Saskatoon, Opekokew was given penicillin along with steroids to help build up his lungs. He was released from the hospital Friday (Feb. 19).

“I’m doing better now,” he said. “I’m going to try to take things easy. Although, when I first came out of the hospital I became scared. I actually felt safer in the hospital.”

Opekokew also said he understands how serious COVID-19 is and hopes other people also understand and treat it with just as much seriousness in return.

“It has no mercy for people,” he said. “I was wearing my mask and everything, and I still caught it somewhere, but I will continue to do my part to protect myself and others.”

The importance of staying safe was echoed by Canoe Lake chief Francis Iron.

“Everyone needs to know it is still a serious matter,” Iron said. “We need to remain vigilant – we can’t let our guard down. We have to make sure our gates are still up and our members are still taking things very seriously because we do not want to lose any members to this virus.”

With Opekokew’s recent return home, Iron said there are currently no active COVID-19 cases in the community.

“With the gate restrictions we have in place, we’re able to stay on top of things and now our cases are back down,” he said.

Opekokew, meanwhile, said he is also looking forward to eventually receiving his COVID-19 vaccine.

“I was actually supposed to get my first dose Feb. 26, but I went to the dentist instead,” Opekokew added. “Now the doctor says I have to wait for three months before I get my vaccine. Because I had COVID, it has to be completely out of my system before I get my shot.”

Opekokew also encourages others who qualify for the vaccine to also be open-minded and to do what is right for them and the people around them.

“People need to get their shot instead of being scared,” he said. “It’s not a conspiracy, they’re trying to help you.”

Iron agreed.

“Right now, people are having mixed emotions on each side, but I believe we need to encourage our people to do whatever it takes to keep the virus out of our community,” Iron said.