Last month, a South Surrey family marked the four-year anniversary of the date their son – a brother, boyfriend and friend – killed himself.
The tragedy happened on Nov. 13, 2012, four days after the distressed man, unbeknownst to his family, sought help at Peace Arch Hospital’s emergency department. There, his family learned later, he was triaged, met with a psychiatric nurse who determined he was at moderate risk of suicide, was seen by the on-duty doctor and was given a pamphlet for a 24-hour crisis line.
“In the paperwork I have, it was, ‘there you go’,” said the man’s sister, who asked that her brother not be identified publicly to protect her family’s privacy. “There was no followup.”
While Fraser Health officials say changes were implemented at emergency departments across the region as a result of the man’s death, his sister said suicides she is aware of in the years since make her question if anything has, in fact, changed with regard to how individuals in similar circumstances are dealt with.
The woman approached Peace Arch News with her concerns after reading about the death last summer of a young woman on Highway 99. The 23-year-old died around 4 p.m. Aug. 23 when she was struck by a northbound tractor-trailer just north of the 16 Avenue overpass. PAN reported that the tragedy occurred within hours of the woman being released from Peace Arch Hospital against her family’s wishes.
“When I read your article, it kind of struck a chord,” she said. “That poor girl, she obviously needed help.”
The woman said that in meetings, hospital officials acknowledged more should have been done for her brother.
A Dec. 9, 2014 letter from Fraser Health’s Patient Care Quality Review Board states a review of his chart “found that there should have been an effort made by hospital staff to follow up with him after he left the ED prior to having his mental health assessment completed.”
A Jan. 21, 2015 letter from Fraser Health board chair Karen Matty promises a protocol to address the gap was being developed and would be implemented across the region by March of that year.
“The situation you described is not what we want for our patients and families,” Matty writes.
Last Friday, Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma said she could not speak to the specifics of the brother’s case, but confirmed the protocol was put in place.
“Since the loss of their loved one, we’ve made changes in how we deal with individuals seeking services from our emergency departments who leave without being seen, before a complete assessment can be done or before a discharge plan is completed,” Juma said by email.
“The protocol is a standardized process to ensure staff connect with patients who leave the emergency department before their assessment/care has been completed, to ensure they receive the appropriate follow-up care, with documentation in their chart.”
In speaking with PAN Monday, Juma explained the protocol kicks in as soon as staff are aware that a patient whose health is believed at risk has left the emergency ward before their assessment is complete. It is applied regardless of whether that health risk is physical or mental, she said, and steps to locate or connect with the individual can range from a search of the hospital grounds to involving police. Each step taken is noted in the patient’s chart, she added.
Juma emphasized the protocol is specific to ER outpatients. In-patients, she said, “are a totally different group to this protocol.”
And, “there’s a whole other process” for patients who leave after being admitted under the Mental Health Act.
And while the 2012 suicide victim’s sister said she heard many times that a lack of resources also played a role in her brother’s treatment that day, Juma said that was not the case.
The sister is not the first person in the months since the Aug. 23 tragedy to approach PAN with concerns about how a loved one with mental-health issues was treated at Peace Arch Hospital.
In September, the family of Spencer Walden came forward (pictured at left).
Walden died last February, in a seven-storey fall from St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver. He had made his way to Vancouver while on a therapeutic pass from the hospital – a pass his family says they implored hospital officials not to issue, as he was struggling with his mental health.
As of this week, a coroner’s investigation into Walden’s death was still ongoing. His family is hoping it will lead to an inquest, as well as a reversal of the classification of Walden’s death to psychosis-induced, rather than suicide.
While these two cases have differences – including that Walden was an in-patient – both families agree that their loved ones’ deaths identify serious issues in health care.
Walden’s mother told PAN in September that she hopes her family’s story will inspire others to speak out, and effect change that prevents similar tragedies.
For the 2012 victim’s sister, the goal is the same.
“It’s the fact… he went in looking for help. He had the confidence and courage to ask for it, and he didn’t get it,” she said of her brother. “That’s the part that kills me, and I don’t want that to happen to anybody else.
“It’s tragic for us, but if the learnings from this can save and change for the future, then that’s a positive.”