Amber Athwal case compels Alberta mother to speak out about son’s dental death: ‘I don’t want him forgotten’

Agatha Syniak holds a picture of her son Dennis, taken on his 18th birthday. Kendra Slugoski

June 5, 1978, was the day Agatha Syniak lost her 18-year-old son.

Dennis Syniak had a routine dentist appointment, hours later he was dead in an Edmonton hospital.

There has not been a day in the past 38 years Syniak hasn’t thought of her son, but the recent story of four-year-old Amber Athwal brought the pain rushing back.

“I couldn’t sleep all night after that,” 83-year old Syniak said after she heard about the little girl on the news.

“All the next day it was just there again like it had happened just the week before. It’s your child, you never give up on them.”

READ MORE: Hearing to be held for Edmonton dentist at centre of Amber Athwal case

Syniak said Dennis was terrified of the dentist. When he cracked a front tooth he insisted he be put to sleep. Dennis went to an Edmonton dentist with an anesthesiologist on staff; the procedure lasted nearly three hours.

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When Syniak returned to the dentist office to pick up her son and take him home, she knew something wasn’t right. She heard him trying to throw up.

“I thought, ‘Oh he’s going to be so upset that he was sick like that.'”

That’s the last sound she heard from Dennis. Then the doors slammed shut and office staff had called an ambulance.

“I went to the door and said, ‘That’s my son in there! What don’t you tell me what the heck is going on?'”

A fatality inquiry ruled Dennis Syniak’s death was accidental, but it gave a detailed report of what happened that day. A general anesthetic was administered by Dr. Hugh MacPhail.

The anesthesiologist gave Dennis a shot of methedrine to speed up his recovery but he went into cardiac arrest.

Two recommendations were brought forward in that report: the first was to have all dental surgeons and physicians intending to practice dental surgery under intravenous or inhalational anesthesia have up-to-date knowledge of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. The second recommendation was to make sure all machines used in administering general anesthetics be inspected two to three times a year by qualified technicians.

READ MORE: Alberta dental association suspends single operator model for deep sedation, anesthesia

It’s not known exactly what happened to four-year-old Amber Athwal during her visit to Dr. William Mather’s office on Sept. 7, 2016.

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Mather said he gave the little girl a general anesthetic and there was nothing unusual about the procedure. In a letter he sent to anesthesiologists, Mather wrote that Amber was hooked up to blood pressure, heart rate, heart rhythm and oxygen monitors. He said a registered nurse was watching over Amber during recovery when she went into distress.

READ MORE: Dr. William Mather breaks his silence

Amber suffered permanent brain damage and is being treated at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

The Alberta Dental Association and College has ordered a public hearing into what happened. Three dentists and one member of the public will rule if Mather is guilty of unprofessional conduct.

All these years later Syniak said she is angered a child has been hurt in the dentist chair.

“When I see the parents talking about their daughter it hurts and I can feel their hurt.”

Syniak’s son Dennis would have been 56 today. He is remembered as an extremely intelligent and ambitious young man. He graduated high school at the age of 16 and had a dream of becoming a chef.

“He’s gone and forgotten and I don’t want him forgotten.”

Along with prayers for Dennis every night, Syniak said she now sends one to Amber and her parents.

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“I just hope for their sake that she comes out of this.”

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