Friday, May 2, 2008

Bizarre malady leads to death

By Dan Hilborn, Burnaby Now assistant editor
Published Sept. 13, 2003

After almost a full year without a holiday of any kind, Alyson Yeates was ecstatic about her planned August long weekend camping trip with her husband Daniel Chartrand.

Little did she know that their weekend in the woods would end in a tragedy that would cost the life of her husband and cast light on an unusual medical condition that can affect almost anyone.

About three hours after setting up their tents at a secluded campground in the Jones Lake area in the mountains near Chilliwack, Chartrand gave his wife a kiss and went off in search of worms to go fishing. What happened next is as bizarre as it is sad.

Chartrand never returned, even though up to a dozen people, including a park ranger, saw him several times over the course of the next few days.

Yeates said that the experts believe that her 36-year-old husband probably wandered deliriously and incoherently through the woods for up to nine days. Whenever he met another person in the popular camping area, Chartrand would apparently talk nonsense, causing most people to believe he was simply a drunk camper.

Slowly casting away his clothes and lacking any food or the means to find it for himself, Chartrand finally lay down in a small clearing and succumbed to the elements.

Chartrand, an otherwise healthy and robust truck driver, was killed by the effects of Woodsman's Disease - a form of hypothermia that causes the person afflicted to act deliriously and shun the company of others.

"Woodsman's Disease is what happens when people are out in the woods and get lost," said Patty Hamilton of the B.C. Coroner's office. "I don't think there's an actual name for it, other than disorientation.

"It's not uncommon for people to become disorientated when walking through the woods. Their bodies deplete, they have a lack of food and nutrition, and they have anxiety. It's not too common, but it's not unusual, either," Hamilton said.

Chartrand's widow fights back the tears as she explains why she wants to raise the profile of this unusual medical phenomenon.

"I want people to know the effects of hypothermia," Yeates said. "I don't want his death to be in vain. If it can save one life by letting other people know what to look for, then we saved one life."

Yeates is still angry that so many other campers apparently saw her husband wandering around the hydro access roads leading into the campground in the first three days after his disappearance. She is especially upset that a park ranger apparently talked to her husband, but left him alone because he appeared to be drunk.

"Woodman's disease means part of your brain shuts down," Yeates said. "You no longer know who you are, where you are, or what you're supposed to be doing. Your muscles and joints go stiff, and you have no balance, so it gives the appearance of being drunk. That's what the park ranger said - 'He was making no sense.'

"The coroner said it can set in in the first night. The longer you are exposed and undernourished, the worse it gets."

But the saddest part of this case is the fact that so many people saw her husband as he wandered deliriously through the woods and not one of them stopped to help.

"There were lots of sightings. One guy reported that he almost ran right over him, but he didn't even bother to stop."

Yeates said her husband was Metis and had a heartfelt desire to help others in distress.

"Dan was the type of guy who picked up hitchhikers," she said. "Often he'd call me on the cell phone and tell me to make up the spare room because he'd picked up a hitchhiker and was bringing them home. We'd feed them.

"That's the type of man Dan was. He would never have passed by somebody in distress without throwing him into the car saying 'If you don't want help, you'll still take help.'"

Yeates officially reported her husband missing early on the Sunday morning, and as the news reports of his disappearance went over the airwaves, the sightings began to come in.

In virtually all of the subsequent 20 reported sightings, the witnesses said they thought that Dan was drunk and did not really need any help.

A police search on Aug. 5 found his shirt, wallet and all his I.D. and money. When a second search on Aug. 10 found nothing, Chartrand's brother, Randy, came from Ontario to conduct his own search.

On Randy's second day in the woods, he discovered his brother's body. Dan Chartrand had lost his glasses, his leg were bruised and battered by the underbrush, and his feet were cut and fingernails blackened.

Randy told The Province newspaper that there was little anyone else could have done to save his brother. "How do you find someone who doesn't want to be found?" he asked.

But he and his brother's widow also question why so many people simply drove past or did nothing to help when they found an obviously incapacitated person wandering alone through the woods.

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