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Expert seafarer Randy Theriault enrolled in a one-week first aid course. After falling ill, he asked if he could go home but was told ‘not without failing,’ according to texts he sent that were provided by his family.

Randy Theriault spent 30 years captaining ships and was praised as an expert seafarer who honed his craft through experience. So, when the Nova Scotia man landed a well-paying job as first mate on a massive fishing vessel this spring, only one small hurdle stood in his way – a first aid course that seemed to be merely a formality.

Now his grieving family is struggling to understand how the 48-year-old Mr. Theriault could die suddenly of pneumonia during a first-aid course designed to deal with such situations. On the morning of April 17, after suffering through fever, shortness of breath, nausea and chest pains while attending the week-long Maritime Advanced First Aid course at Nova Scotia Community College, Mr. Theriault was found dead at a Port Hawkesbury bed and breakfast where he had been staying.

Days earlier, Mr. Theriault began complaining of what he thought was a bad flu, his family said. And when the symptoms became too difficult to manage, Mr. Theriault's family says he asked if he could go home, but was told he would not pass the course if he left. So, with his new job on the line, Mr. Theriault decided to stick it out, even as his condition worsened.

The college says it is investigating what went on inside the classroom. The first-aid course is run by St. John Ambulance, which says Mr. Theriault exhibited normal vital signs during the course, although he "complained from time-to-time of flu-like symptoms." In a statement, St. John Ambulance spokeswoman Clara Wicke said "instructors agreed to provide Mr. Theriault with reasonable accommodation to complete his certification by allowing him to make up missed time at a later date."

That statement has upset Mr. Theriault's family, who say text messages in the days leading up to his death indicate he was faced with the choice of staying in class or failing the course because it was not offered regularly. Mr. Theriault told his girlfriend, Jaunita Tobin: "Asked if could go home at 1:30... not without failing," according to texts the family provided to The Globe and Mail. "Throat so sore from coughing i can't talk."

Mr. Theriault's ill-fated attempt to complete the week of classes, and whether he was told he could make up the course rather than fail it and harm his job eligibility is the lesser of the questions that trouble his family most. They want to know how Mr. Theriault could die while learning how to deal with emergencies such as respiratory ailments at sea, which includes pneumonia.

In a statement to The Globe on Friday, St. John Ambulance chief executive officer Allan Smith said the agency is looking into the situation, and will co-operate with "any official investigation" into the matter. "Mr. Theriault was exhibiting flu-like sympoms. We teach and practice first aid. We do not undertake medical diagnoses and are not qualified or permitted to do so," Mr. Smith said.

The family questions the assertion that Mr. Theriault displayed normal vital signs in the class. In one of his final texts to Ms. Tobin, he says he has a fever, and that he felt embarrassed about his laboured breathing in the classroom.

"I just want to make sure that there is a thorough investigation on this and we do get some answers to understand what happened, why it happened, and how something like this might be avoided in the future," said his sister, Cindy Theriault. "The irony of this is that if he'd have been just about anywhere else that week instead of in that advanced first-aid course, I'm thinking he might be alive. If he'd have been home here, we would have definitely gotten him to the doctor or something."

Mr. Theriault's brother, Craig Theriault, said the family would like to speak to other students, and is hoping some will reach out to the family. Randy Theriault lived in Ferry, N.S., and had six children between the ages of 12 and 22. His 21-year-old son Cody said the family is struggling to accept the death. "It's really something that's hard to believe," he said. "He was just so young you never expected something like that to happen."

Craig Theriault said one of the cruellest aspects of his brother's death is that Randy was a seasoned captain, who had been praised for his leadership and skill when he worked in Norway. The first aid certificate he needed was a more recent formality, Craig said, and his brother had first-hand experience dealing with many emergencies.

"This guy has been everywhere, done everything, gone around the world, run boats across the Atlantic and whatever else, yet he dies getting an advanced first-aid certificate," said Mr. Theriault, who also works in the industry. "He was getting to the point that he knew he was sick. He knew there was something seriously wrong, but his whole life revolved around this one piece of paper."

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