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Rights + Justice

Kitimat Parents Grieving Their Stillborn Child Sue Doctors and Hospital

Couple allege racism, and delays led to tragedy. Northern Health has launched a review.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 12 Feb 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood lives and writes amidst the stunning mountains and rivers of Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

British Columbia’s Northern Health Authority has launched a review of allegations of racism at northern hospitals following a lawsuit filed by parents who say their child was stillborn because of inadequate health care linked to discrimination.

“These allegations are taken extremely seriously, and we believe that the review underway will allow us to understand what occurred from the experience of this family, the staff and physicians,” the health authority said in a statement today.

The review is being led by health authority staff with guidance from Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who conducted an investigation last year that found widespread anti-Indigenous racism in B.C.’s health-care system.

Heartbreaking details emerged in court documents filed Wednesday in BC Supreme Court by Sarah Morrison and Ronald Luft, who allege their unborn child was examined and appeared healthy when they arrived at the Kitimat General Hospital on Jan. 27.

Later that evening, after being turned away from the hospital and travelling 45 minutes to Terrace, they learned that the baby no longer had a heartbeat.

The delays in receiving care were, in part, due to discussion over whether the couple could afford the cost of an ambulance transfer, according to the court documents.

582px version of SarahMorrisonPregnantSelfie.jpg
Sarah Morrison was due to give birth to her first child when she attended Kitimat General Hospital on Jan. 27. Although the baby appeared healthy, after a series of delays in receiving medical attention, she was told her unborn baby did not have a heartbeat when she was examined hours later in Terrace. Photo via Facebook with permission from the family.

The documents allege that on the evening of Jan. 27, which the mother believed was “on or about” her expected date to give birth, the pair called ahead to inform the Kitimat hospital that Morrison, who is from the Haisla Nation, was experiencing labour pains.

“Despite having limited prenatal care, the pregnancy was unremarkable, and all signs indicated a healthy fetus when the Plaintiffs presented themselves to the KGH on January 27, 2021,” the documents say.

After waiting five minutes, a nurse checked the baby’s fetal movements and heart rate, which appeared to be normal. “No decelerations were reported to the Plaintiffs which was a reassuring sign,” the filing states.

Although the mother expressed concern to the nurse that she believed she was leaking amniotic fluid, the lawsuit alleges the nurse did not examine her and “took no steps to make sure there was no risk to the fetus due to the amniotic fluid leakage.”

The couple then waited 10 minutes to see the doctor who “advised the Plaintiffs that there was nothing he could do for them and that he did not understand why they came to KGH, stating that they should have gone to the hospital in Terrace.”

Outside Kitimat hospital, the couple called an ambulance to take them to the Mills Memorial Hospital, 60 kilometres away in Terrace.

“The ambulance arrived and took the Plaintiffs from one end of KGH to the other end of KGH,” the claim says.

But the ambulance driver refused to take them to the Terrace hospital. “The Attendant said the Plaintiffs would have to pay for the ambulance and inquired whether the Plaintiffs were even able to do that,” the suit alleges.

When the expectant parents told the ambulance attendant that they would pay any costs, they were told that one of the doctors named in the suit had said it was “not necessary to transport the Plaintiffs by ambulance.”

Shortly after 7 p.m., Morrison called her father to drive them. They arrived in Terrace about 8 p.m. After waiting 15 minutes, three doctors and two nurses “declared that they were unable to find a fetal heartbeat.” A doctor told the mother that an emergency C-section “was not in her best interest for future pregnancies” and declined to perform the surgery.

No efforts were made to determine why there was no heartbeat, according to the documents.

Just before 2 a.m., Morrison gave birth to a stillborn baby girl, Coral-Lee Edith Cheryl Luft. She weighed seven pounds, eight ounces.

“No attempts to resuscitate the Baby were made,” the documents state.

Dustin Gauchier is Morrison’s uncle. He said his niece tried to resuscitate her stillborn baby alone.

“They wouldn’t perform CPR, they would do nothing for this child, and they left my niece and sister in the hospital room alone, where my niece took it upon herself to give that baby CPR,” he said.

He added that no grief counselling was offered to his niece and that none of the health-care professionals involved in the evening’s tragic events ever followed up with the family.

The family’s lawyer and members of the public have since helped to arrange crisis counselling for the mother.

“Take systemic racism out of this, and how does it happen to any human being? There’s so many red flags leading up within hours that this baby could have been saved,” Gauchier said.

He says he’s not entirely surprised given systemic racism in his community.

“There are a lot of Elders who don’t feel comfortable to go to the hospital,” Gauchier says about Kitimat. “This has been going on for years.”

It’s the second time in recent months that a tragic outcome has resulted after someone was turned away from Kitimat General Hospital.

Naomi Bracken, who is from the Gitxsan Nation, says her son, Joshua Benson, left work in August to get medical attention for severe chest pains. “He could hardly even breathe or talk,” she says. “All they did for him was give him painkillers and anti-inflammatories.”

Late that evening, Benson was sent on his way. While walking the distance back to his truck, he collapsed and died. He was later determined to have an aortic dissection with a rupture, a rare but serious condition affecting the heart.

“It was 10 o’clock at night. He had no ride. He lived in Terrace. He didn’t even live in Kitimat,” Bracken says. “Why do they not assure that there is somebody there to get him, at least? Just because he’s Native?”

582px version of JoshuaBensonProfile.jpg
Joshua Benson sought medical attention for severe chest pains at Kitimat General Hospital in August. After being released with painkillers, he collapsed and died while walking back to his truck. Northern Health says it will review allegations of racism at northern BC hospitals.

The lawsuit filed by Morrison and Luft alleges that hospital records from their visit included “racial tropes and stereotype facts.” Records show that medical staff noted details about the medical history and substance abuse of Morrison’s parents, the baby’s grandparents.

“No assessment of Sarah was ever conducted, and no information was ever collected,” the documents state.

Northern Health Authority said today it cannot speak to specifics of the case.

“We do wish to express that the loss of a child is tragic, and our hearts go out to the family,” it said in a statement. “Northern Health remains committed to continued learning and improvement in how we attend to systemic racism in the health-care system.”

Morrison and Luft are seeking damages and costs against Northern Health Authority, Kitimat General Hospital and Mills Memorial Hospital, in addition to a number of health care workers they saw that evening.

None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been tested in court.

The defendants have three weeks to file a response to the claim.  [Tyee]

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