Samwel Uko (right) and his father prior to the news that he had signed with the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. (Ben Lypka/Abbotsford News)

Family of dead B.C. football star urge changes to mental health policies in hospitals

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They called him “Dunga” – a tribal family name from his native Sudan.

It has been nearly two weeks since former Abbotsford football star Samwel Uko died by suicide in a Saskatchewan lake at the age of 20, but the stinging pain still has the Uko family reeling.

RELATED: Officials looking for answers after Abbotsford football star found dead in Sask. lake

Justin Paul, Uko’s uncle who lived with the family for many years in Abbotsford before moving to Calgary, was shocked to hear the news of his passing late on the evening of May 21.

“It’s been hard, it’s been tough,” he said. “We just … I don’t know. We are a very small family and the first immigrants from back home to come to Canada. This is all the family we’ve got.”

Paul said his nephew was special and managed to always put those around him in a better mood.

“Samwel was a very happy person,” he said. “He always tried to make everyone feel welcome around him. He was a people person; everyone loved to talk to Samwell and loved his smile. He was a problem-solver. He was just an awesome guy, and it’s a big loss for us.”

Paul said Uko made the drive to Regina on May 19 to visit his aunt and cousins. He said Uko woke up on the morning of May 21 and told his family that he had been hearing voices in his head, and he was acting unusual.

Paul said that Uko had never been diagnosed with any sort of mental-health issues and had never spoken of them in the past.

He said that Uko had also never suffered any significant head injuries from his many years of playing football. It’s a mystery to Paul and his family what sparked these issues.

Uko’s cousin then took him to a Regina hospital, but was not allowed to enter the facility due to COVID-19 restrictions that were implemented at the time that limited hospital attendees from bringing others with them.

A series of miscommunications then followed at the hospital, which Paul said led to his nephew’s death.

“They let us down,” Paul said. “His cousin went with him and they told him to leave. The cousin tried to tell them that he needed to explain Samwel’s situation but they said, ‘We don’t need you’ and they called security on him. He then wrote his number down on a piece of paper so they could call him to explain what was wrong with Samwel.”

That phone call never happened.

About 45 minutes later, Samwel called his cousin to say he could be picked up. Samwel then told his cousin that he received a prescription from the hospital and to go to a pharmacy to pick up his medication.

Paul said that, unfortunately, that “prescription” turned out to be a business card with a 1-800 number that had to be called to qualify for Saskatchewan health care.

“Given his mental status at the time, he thought they gave him a prescription,” Paul said.

Uko became frustrated at the pharmacy and then told his cousin to take him home. A few hours later, he was dead in Wascana Lake.

RELATED: Abbotsford football star Samwel Uko dies at age 20

“That’s why I feel disappointed and horrible from the hospital,” Paul said. “There was someone there who volunteered and said, ‘Give me a call and I will explain what is happening,’ but they did not do that.”

Today (June 3), the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s CEO, Scott Livingstone, announced that a policy change has now been made that a family member or support person will be allowed for those seeking help. Livingstone said that the new policy change was not related to Uko’s death.

“In my view it does have something to do with it, even if he denies it,” Paul said. “I think it shouldn’t take my nephew’s death for them to change the policy. It’s something they should have done long time ago. It feels too little, too late for us.”

Paul also said that, although Livingstone did offer his condolences to the Uko family in today’s press conference, no one from the SHA has reached out to the family.

He said hospital staff did not do their best to help his nephew.

“We needed someone to tell the hospital staff, ‘This is what is happening. This is what this person is going through.’ They didn’t do that,” Paul said.

The SHA has an ongoing investigation into what happened, but nothing has been released. Details from an autopsy on Uko’s body have also not yet been released. A request for an update from the SHA by The News was not given.

Paul said the support from the Abbotsford community has been heartwarming. A GoFundMe account for the family raised double its goal, and a related petition that was started to raise awareness for mental-health issues has over 28,000 signatures.

“It’s been fabulous,” he said. “They are showing the love and kindness to all of us. It has been really great seeing the community coming together. It shows how much he was loved by his peers. We owe them for all the love they have shown us.”

Paul said he hopes his nephew’s death can lead to more discussion and aid for those dealing with mental-health issues.

“We, as a people, have to be able to talk openly about mental health because there are a lot of people dealing with it behind closed doors and they don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Medical staff should be trained to know what to do when someone comes in under distress like Samwel did. Instead of just sending them away, they should get more information before letting them go, and follow up.”

Paul added that he hopes people remember Uko fondly.

“He was a great guy in his young age,” he said. “People have to love each other, talk to each other and be there for each other. I hope this can lead to more people talking about this important issue because, especially with the young guys, people need to address it and adjust.”

Paul said the community is invited to Uko’s celebration of life. A viewing occurs at Grace Gospel Church at 2087 McMillan Rd. in Abbotsford on Friday, June 5 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m, and on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. A service will follow the Saturday viewing.

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