Nightmares, anxiety still plague survivor of 2012 legionnaires' outbreak

Laurent Lalonde used to sit inside his favourite library in downtown Quebec City two or three times a week.

"It was part of my life, I love books."

Going back inside the building where he contracted legionnaires' disease in 2012 now brings on panic attacks, just one of the many side effects he has had to cope with since.

"I had to go to the bathroom, take deep breaths, calm myself, I didn't stay long. I couldn't," Lalonde said about the first time he went back into the Bibliothèque Gabrielle-Roy.

The library is part of a building complex in Quebec City's lower town where airborne legionella bacteria seeped from cooling towers during the summer of 2012, killing 14 people and affecting more than 180 others. 

Lalonde is among the victims involved in a class-action suit that was set to go to trial at the end of the month. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs announced on Monday that a settlement had been reached. 

But for Lalonde, no dollar figure can replace what he lost that day.

Kim Garritty/CBC

"Money is OK, but happiness is not money. Happiness is feeling good with yourself and people around you."

Recurring nightmares, anger and an inability to create art like he used to are all obstacles to Lalonde's happiness.

"I'm waiting for it to pass. I did a few performances, but it's not me. It's not what I used to be."

Lengthy rehabilitation

When Lalonde heard about the outbreak in 2012, he left town for two weeks, knowing his health was fragile.

Despite taking this precaution, when he returned from his trip he fell ill.

Suspecting a cold, Lalonde stayed home for three days until he could no longer walk in a straight line.

It took only five minutes in the emergency room before doctors told him they had to induce a coma — and that he had legionnaires'.

"They told me, 'how far do you want us to go?'" Lalonde said in an interview with Quebec AM host Susan Campbell.

With little time to react, he asked the doctors to "do whatever it takes."

Ten days later, Lalonde woke up with a new set of lungs and an overall sense of panic.

"It was the worst thing I ever lived in my life. I couldn't walk, I couldn't shave for three months," he said.

Lalonde embarked on a painful physical and mental rehabilitation. His confidence in public health officials was shattered, and he avoided going back to a hospital at all costs.


He hasn't yet been able to resume creating art.

"Painting is about sending a message. I think it's better not to do it when your mind is not OK," he said.

Nonetheless, the 47-year-old is hopeful that with time and treatment his mental health will improve. He collaborates with other artists to try to inspire them.

"I think it's going to bring me back on the road. Because I don't want to stop," he said.

Learning from mistakes

Lalonde hopes the settlement will renew conversations around the causes of the outbreak, and that its human toll won't be lost on those who monitor cooling systems.

"I hope they will do something about this and not wait to have 200 people sick," he said.

Documents revealed in 2013 that Quebec City public health officials waited days before releasing new information to the public during the outbreak.

The coroner's report also revealed that many recommendations made in 1997, following a previous outbreak, had been ignored.

Kevin Doughety/CBC

"Despite outbreaks of legionellosis that occurred in the past, adequate controls were not in place and the public health authorities in Quebec did not have the necessary tools to effectively manage the crisis," the coroner said in the report.

Lalonde hopes this won't happen yet again.

"It's normal to have problems in the city but you have to act, to react and let people know," he said.

The CSQ, along with Quebec's public health authority, Trane Canada ULC — the contractor responsible for maintaining and inspecting the cooling towers — and State Chemical Ltd. — the supplier of water treatment products — were all named as defendants in the class-action suit.

The terms of the agreement will made public on Oct. 5, after the trial judge gives his approval, according to the victims' lawyer.