Northern Health denies Indigenous couple's racism claims

·3 min read

Northern Health is denying an Indigenous couple's allegation that health care providers used racial stereotypes and failed to provide emergency care before the death of their baby.

Sarah Morrison and Ronald Luft are suing the authority, as well as several doctors and Kitimat General Hospital and Mills Memorial Hospital in Terrace, over the January 27 event.

In part, the complainants and defendants differ over the health of the baby when they arrived at KGH that evening after Morrison began experiencing contraction pain.

In their notice of claim, the couple said a nurse advised them that a fetal heart rate of 140 beats per minute was detected and was then recorded in the medical records provided to them.

But in a response filed March 5, Northern Health said the nurse spent several minutes trying to find a heart beat. "At one point, there was a brief five-second pick-up for a heart rate of 140 beats per minute, but it was faint and the signal was not very clear," Northern Health said.

It said the nurse then left to find the on-call doctor and to retrieve a test from the supply room to confirm a leakage of amniotic fluid.

The doctor and the nurse returned to the room the couple was in and the doctor told them he needed to assess Morrison to determine whether she could deliver at KGH or not. The hospital can support low-risk deliveries only and patients in need of higher-level care are sent to Mills Memorial in Terrace, Northern Health said.

When the doctor told them he needed to assess Morrison, Luft "began to yell and alleged that the patients were being refused service." The couple left before the nurse could administer the test, Northern Health said.

In their notice of claim, the couple said they called an ambulance to take them to MMH but balked when told they would have to pay for the trip themselves. Instead, they contacted Morrison's father, who drove them to MMH, about a 45-minute trip.

In the response, Northern Health said the ambulance carrying the couple pulled up to the ambulance bay at KGH where an emergency nurse told Morrison she was welcome to be assessed at KGH. But they did not reenter the hospital and instead left in a private vehicle.

Northern Health said Morrison was assessed upon arrival at MMH but a fetal heart rate could not be found and doctors eventually determined the baby was no longer alive. A few hours later, Morrison delivered a stillborn baby.

The couple maintained "no meaningful attempts" were made to save their daughter despite Morrison's concerns and pleas to medical staff. Morrison "begged" for a caesarean section to save her baby, but a staff member allegedly told her "he did not see the point and it was not in her best interest for future pregnancies."

Coral-Lee Edith Cheryl Luft, weighing seven pounds eight ounces, was born Jan. 27, 2021.

"The baby was washed and wrapped in a blanket and given to Sarah. No attempts to resuscitate the baby were made," the lawsuit alleges.

While no information was collected from them, the couple's statement of claim alleges that staff included racial stereotyping in Morrison's medical records, such as that she was in an abusive relationship, her parents were alcoholics and that she was depressed. The statement of claim alleges those inaccurate records influenced how medical staff treated her.

In specific response, Northern Health said the information referenced came from an antenatal record, a questionnaire to detect mothers and babies at risk, and was not completed by staff at either hospital.

Northern Health said the questions posed and charted by its employees were appropriate and that they acted in accordance with standard practice and without racial stereotyping.

The couple is suing for general and special damages.

Both hospitals are named in Northern Health's response. The physicians and nurse named in the couple's lawsuit have not yet filed responses and the allegations have not been tested in court.

Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince George Citizen