A Fredericton man is still reeling after he witnessed a man he describes as a senior in a wheelchair die alone in the waiting room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital's emergency department early Tuesday morning while waiting for care.
John Staples says the experience was a "stark and sombre realization" that New Brunswick's health-care system is "so sadly broken."
"It was a surreal moment because, I mean, I think I realized that they had just passed away in an ER waiting room," he said. "You're at a place where you're supposed to get care and you wind up passing away while you're waiting for that care."
"You're basically at the front door of health care … You're on the threshold of getting the care you need and you don't get it in time."
Staples, a residential support worker at an Oromocto community residence, says he went to the emergency room with a client who needed emergency care around midnight Monday.
He noticed the patient in question, who was several feet in front of them.
"It was very evident that they were in a lot of discomfort, just the way that they were behaving," he said.
"There was moaning and groaning and just the grimace on the face. I mean, it's just, you know, natural signs of discomfort when somebody is ill."
Appeared to fall asleep
After at least an hour of waiting, Staples moved his client from sitting along the wall to sitting beside the patient, respecting COVID distancing, so the client could watch the television on the wall.
Staples and his client watched a couple of half-hour TV shows and the patient appeared to fall asleep, he said.
A hospital employee came out to check on people in the ER, which was fairly full, Staples said.
"And when they checked this one individual, very professionally rushed back [into the ER], so as not to cause any alarm, I assume."
Staples looked at the patient and noticed no rise and fall of the man's chest to indicate he was breathing. "And I thought, 'This person is gone.'"
That's when the hospital employee reappeared with three people and they wheeled the patient into the ER, he said.
"And as they were wheeling that person back, they called the 'code blue,'" which typically signals cardiac or respiratory arrest.
But they were too late.
"So that individual actually sat there in the waiting room and passed away."
No details released
Dr. John Dornan, president and CEO of the Horizon Health Network, confirmed that "an unexpected patient death took place" in the emergency department waiting room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Regional Hospital on Tuesday,.
No details about the patient or the circumstances surrounding the death have been released.
"Horizon thoroughly reviews any unexpected deaths that occur in our facilities to determine what took place and whether further action is required," Dornan said in an emailed statement. "As it relates to this incident, we immediately started the review process.
"We would like to extend our deepest sympathies to this individual's family and loved ones."
'We all have somebody that it could have been'
Staples was so moved by the experience he posted about it on social media Tuesday night.
"I think bringing this to people's attention, I mean, it's not new information, the wait times and the strain on our health-care system. But the fact that somebody passed away while waiting in a waiting room is — if there's ever a straw that breaks the camel's back, I think this is definitely a good opportunity for change to come about because we can't have people dying in our waiting rooms."
The Facebook post appears to have struck a chord. By Wednesday afternoon, it had been shared more than 3,000 times and had received nearly 200 comments. Staples isn't surprised.
"Well, I know for me personally, I have elderly parents. My dad has health issues. It could have been my dad being there. Right? And we all have somebody that it could have been.
"I mean, the fact that I didn't know the name of the individual who passed away doesn't change the importance and the severity of the situation.
"They're somebody's loved one. … They're still somebody who deserves the dignity and respect of being seen by a health-care professional."
Staples couldn't say whether the patient was triaged properly but said he doesn't blame the ER staff who were working that busy overnight shift. He has great empathy for them, he said.
They had to field a lot of questions and complaints from patients, he said, including one man who rang the bell after waiting four hours and left without being treated, as did a few others while Staples was there.
"The attendant was very empathetic with [the man who complained], but [said], 'You know, we've had people that have been here for eight hours. We're doing everything that we can,' which I believe they were.
"But it's just, what do we do with these wait times? Like, where do we get the doctors to come in so that we don't have people dying in waiting rooms?"
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said she was "deeply saddened and concerned" to learn of the patient's death and offered sympathy to the individual's family and friends.
She has requested a review of "the incident" from Horizon "for a complete understanding," she said in an emailed statement.
"We know the health care system is facing challenges and that frontline staff are working hard," Shephard said. "I have no doubt that every New Brunswicker and all of our health care workers are affected by this story. We all want to know that when we go for help it will be there, and that it can be provided.
"I anticipate receiving more information from Horizon officials in the coming days as the review progresses and the Department of Health offers our support to help in any way we can."
Save system 'before it's too late'
The Official Opposition is calling for the minister's resignation.
Jean-Claude D'Amours, the health critic for the Liberals, issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon about the patient's "very tragic passing" and offering condolences to family and friends "involved in this sad situation."
Citizens are pleading for help and all we hear from this government are platitudes and excuses for missed deadlines. - Jean-Claude D'Amours, Liberal health critic
"Unfortunately, given the incompetence of the Higgs government and in particular the minister of health in addressing the dire crisis in health care in this province, this terrible outcome was a very real possibility," D'Amours said.
The Liberals have repeatedly demanded to see Shephard's plan to recruit "desperately needed health care professionals," he said.
"And ours is not a unique voice: professional health care associations like the Medical Society and the Nurses Association have demanded action, citizens are pleading for help and all we hear from this government are platitudes and excuses for missed deadlines."
D'Amours called on the province to immediately free up enough of its "huge surpluses" to address hospital staffing issues.
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves initially budgeted a $244 million deficit for this year, but massive federal pandemic spending and a roaring economy turned it into a projected $487.8 million surplus.
But last month, Premier Blaine Higgs said it's too early to say if the province will be able to run a budget surplus as projected. The province is facing $100 million in higher costs because of inflation, and N.B. Power could take a similar hit, he said.
The premier "needs to stop whining to the federal government, demand that his minister of health resign and get on with saving our health care system before it's too late," said D'Amours.