'Shocked' family says Cape Breton woman died after leaving busy emergency department

SYDNEY, N.S. — The family of a Nova Scotia woman says she died at home after waiting seven hours without seeing a doctor and deciding to leave the emergency department.

Katherine Snow said her mother-in-law, Charlene Snow, went to the Cape Breton Regional Hospital on the afternoon of Dec. 30 with jaw pain and flu-like symptoms and was triaged by a nurse.

She said the 67-year-old left the hospital after giving up on seeing a doctor and assuming she would have better luck the next morning at a nearby urgent treatment clinic.

However, Snow said her mother-in-law had a heart attack and died at about 9:45 p.m., about an hour after returning to her house in Donkin, N.S., about 30 kilometres east of the hospital in Sydney.

“It was uncomfortable for her (in the waiting area), she was so ill," Snow in an interview Thursday. "She decided she would go home and try her luck at the urgent care (clinic) in the morning, but she didn’t make it until the morning.

“Her heart stopped within an hour of her being back home.”

Snow said after going through a period of shock and grief, the family decided to make the story public.

"We were mad and upset that she was in an emergency department and she came home and died."

The family has been told that Charlene didn't realize she had hemopericardium, a condition where blood accumulates behind the heart.

"She spoke to us during the day, and she told us she was triaged but we don't know specifically what happened. She didn't see a doctor," she added.

The daughter-in-law said the family believes the death can be linked to overcrowding of the hospital system and to lack of staff.

"I would hope that if she'd seen a doctor that her symptoms would have presented and she would have had the fluid drained and maybe still be with us," said Snow.

In the days after the funeral, Snow has worked with family friends to create a website, nshealthcarecrisis.ca, that shares Charlene's story, along with stories contributed by other families who've received inadequate care.

"The point isn't to point the finger at the health-care professions but at the system's problems, and to draw attention to what's happening on the ground," said the 43-year-old mother of two.

Nova Scotia Health said it did an initial review of what happened and will conduct a formal review.

Brett MacDougall, vice-president of operations for the Eastern Zone, declined to release any details.

"We are very sorry to hear about the Snow family’s loss of a loved one, and our thoughts go out to them at this difficult time," he said in an email Thursday night.

"We have reached out to the patient’s family to discuss the initial review. We are committed to hearing their concerns and answering their questions with followup of any findings."

News of Charlene Snow's case follows recent revelations about the death of 37-year-old Allison Holthoff, who waited more than six hours in the emergency department in Amherst, N.S., before she was taken to a room inside the unit. The mother of three died at the Cumberland Regional Health Centre on Dec. 31.

Holthoff's husband, Gunter Holthoff, brought his wife's case to his local member of the legislature on Jan. 3, providing the troubling details of her final hours in hospital.

He has said he took his wife to the hospital when she collapsed in extreme pain after complaining of an upset stomach at their home near Amherst, N.S., 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.

She later died after doctors determined her condition had deteriorated to the point where she couldn't be helped. Her cause of death has not been released.

Nova Scotia's health authority is conducting a review of what happened in the Holthoff case.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 90 per cent of emergency department visits in Nova Scotia were completed within 11.2 hours in 2021-22, which is below the national average of 12.4 hours.

The institute's statistics did not include data from New Brunswick or Newfoundland and Labrador, and some of the provinces that submitted data — including Nova Scotia — did not provide figures from all of their emergency departments.

Nova Scotia, for example, provided numbers from eight facilities even though it has 38 emergency departments.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2023.

— By Michael Tutton in Halifax with files from Michael MacDonald

The Canadian Press