Family says Cape Breton woman died after not getting help at emergency ward during 7-hour wait

Katherine Snow of Port Caledonia, N.S., and her three-year-old daughter, Nora, hold a portrait of Charlene Snow who died within an hour of leaving a crowded emergency room at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney on Dec. 30.   (Erin Pottie/CBC  - image credit)
Katherine Snow of Port Caledonia, N.S., and her three-year-old daughter, Nora, hold a portrait of Charlene Snow who died within an hour of leaving a crowded emergency room at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney on Dec. 30. (Erin Pottie/CBC - image credit)

The family of a Cape Breton woman who died less than an hour after returning home from a crowded emergency room has created a website they hope will gather stories about a failing health-care system.

On Dec. 30, Charlene Snow visited the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney, N.S., after complaining of a sore jaw and flu-like symptoms.

Family and friends say Snow sent a number of text messages during her visit before she eventually decided to leave after waiting roughly seven or eight hours to see a doctor.

The 67-year-old later died within an hour of returning to her Donkin, N.S., home where she lived with her husband, Freddie.

'The system failed her'

Katherine Snow is married to Charlene's son, Dennis, who often travels to western Canada for work.

She described her mother-in-law as her "right arm" as she was always around to help out with the couple's three-year-old daughter.

"I just feel in my heart that it may have been preventable and that my daughter would still have her Nan," said Snow, who lives nearby in Port Caledonia, N.S.

"I'm just angry. I'm angry because the system failed her."

Snow believes Charlene was triaged at the ER and told to wait for her name to be called to see a doctor or nurse. The senior told family by text that she watched as several sick children arrived with their parents.

"My husband checked in frequently to see if she needed company, or something to eat, and she said, 'It's too packed in here, there isn't even a seat for anyone to come.'"

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

Charlene's family was told she asked a staff member how much longer to expect to wait. And after being too uncomfortable to sit any longer, the senior planned to try her luck at getting a next-day appointment at an urgent care clinic in North Sydney.

But for Charlene, the following day never came. The medical examiner told her family she died that night of hemopericardium or a fluid build-up in her heart.

Snow's family has filed a complaint with patient relations through the Nova Scotia Health Authority and are waiting on more information about what happened.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston sent out a news release about Snow's death on Thursday.

It offered condolences to Snow's family and acknowledged that ER wait times in the province are concerning.

"I can assure you that the minister of Health and Wellness and Nova Scotia Health are exploring all ways to improve patient access to care throughout our system when they need it most. We will continue to update the public with our progress."

Nova Scotia's Minister of Health Michelle Thompson sent out her own statement which says a formal investigation is now taking place.

Thompson said findings of their probe will be shared with Snow's family and any recommendations will be acted upon.

Brett MacDougall, vice-president of operations for the eastern zone of Nova Scotia Health, said in an email Thursday that the authority conducted an initial review as soon as it was informed of the situation.

A formal review will also be conducted, MacDougall said.

According to MacDougall, the authority has attempted to contact the family to discuss the initial review and is committed to listening to their concerns and answering any questions.

Public scrutiny

Snow's death isn't the only to happen after a long wait in a Nova Scotia emergency department in recent weeks.

In Amherst, N.S., a 37-year-old woman died while waiting for care at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre on Dec. 31.

The young mother's death has sparked public scrutiny of the provincial health-care system.

In light of the two recent deaths, Liberal Leader Zach Churchill released a statement calling for an emergency session of the legislature to investigate them.

"The tragedies that have recently unfolded highlight a failure of the Houston government to provide emergency services when Nova Scotians need them most," Churchill said in the statement, adding that the health-care system "deserves the full attention of this government."

Not blaming health-care workers

"What we really want to understand is how somebody spends eight hours in an emergency department and comes home and dies within 45 minutes," said Snow.
"We in no way want anyone to feel that this should be on their conscience. We certainly want answers and we want accountability as to why this happened. But we understand that health-care workers are working in a very broken system as well."

Snow shared the story of what happened to Charlene on her Facebook page and was inundated with calls, emails and text messages.

She said the response made her realize that there are many other people with similar stories that show the health-care system needs help.

Snow and a friend spent four hours this week creating a website called

Erin Pottie/CBC
Erin Pottie/CBC

The web page is meant to give Nova Scotians a permanent space to share their stories about how the Nova Scotia health-care system has failed them.

Snow said in today's fast-paced world, news stories often come and go. She's also offering anonymity to any health-care workers who wish to write in with their own tales.

By compiling stories from around the province, Snow hopes the Nova Scotia government will recognize some common threads and have no choice but to make changes where they are needed.

"I wanted to be able to have a spot for people to channel their own experience and their own grief  —  where they can feel like they're heard and that their concerns are validated. And hopefully, … this gets to the right eyeballs. I will make sure."