Nova Scotia man wants answers after wife dies following seven-hour ER wait

AMHERST, NOVA SCOTIA — A Nova Scotia man whose 37-year-old wife died in hospital after waiting seven hours to see a doctor is looking for answers from the provincial health system.

Allison Holthoff died New Year's Eve after she was taken to the busy emergency room at the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst, N.S., about 140 kilometres north of Halifax.

Holthoff was a mother of three school-aged children, and the deputy chief of a volunteer fire department.

“Unfortunately I feel we were neglected to a point where they couldn’t ignore us anymore, but at that point it was just too late,” her widower, Gunter Holthoff, told reporters during a news conference Monday.

Gunter Holthoff said he took his wife, who had collapsed in extreme pain after complaining of an upset stomach, to the hospital around 11 a.m. on Dec. 31.

After being triaged by hospital staff, she waited more than six hours in the emergency department before she was taken to a room inside the unit, he said. It was another hour before she saw a doctor and received pain treatment.

He said that at one point during the wait his wife’s pain got so bad, she left her wheelchair and curled up in the fetal position on a blanket on the floor. He said he told a nurse several times that his wife’s condition was deteriorating, adding that at least one other person who was also waiting for care went to the nurse to urge them to help her.

“I told them she was getting worse and there was not much of a response," Holthoff said. “They said, 'We are doing what we can and we don’t have any beds.'”

He said his wife told him that she felt like she was dying because she was in so much pain.

Eventually, she was assessed by a doctor and given pain medication in a private room. She was being prepped for X-rays when her eyes suddenly rolled to the back of her head, Holthoff said. He said he was told soon after that his wife was resuscitated three times by medical staff.

Medical officials were preparing for possible surgery when the decision was made that she had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t be helped. She died later that evening, Holthoff said.

He said he still doesn’t know her official cause of death and wants answers from the provincial government so both he and the public can have confidence in the health system.

“This was a terrible situation for my wife and for my kids, and I just wish that we can avoid this happening to anybody else."

Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the Independent member of the legislature for Cumberland North, said she has written to Premier Tim Houston to seek answers and to suggest changes at Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre’s emergency room, which is under renovation.

Smith-McCrossin suggested that a health-care worker be present in the hospital waiting room and that more nurses be moved to the emergency department. She said the provincial Health Department should also appoint a patient adviser to the hospital who would support families of deceased patients and answer questions.

In an email, Nova Scotia’s health authority refused to comment on the specifics of the case, citing privacy, but said that a quality review would be conducted. “Our case reviews are done under the Quality Improvement Information Protection Act and as such, are confidential.”

In an interview Monday, Health Minister Michelle Thompson said she was “heartbroken” over the case, adding that the results of the health authority’s investigation would be shared with the family and her department.

Thompson said she wants the public to have confidence that they will be assisted when they seek help from the medical system.

“This event is tragic and we are committed to investigating and understanding what happened,” she said.

Allison Holthoff’s death occurred after two managers at the Dartmouth General Hospital last month warned in an email to staff that overcrowding and a lack of resources in many emergency rooms across the province were leading to situations where “patients are dying in the waiting rooms.”

Nova Scotia Health later clarified that the managers meant that some patients were dying because of health complications due to long waits, rather than literally dying in the waiting areas.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2023.

— By Keith Doucette in Halifax.

The Canadian Press