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B.C. woman with disability dies alone in hospital due to COVID-19 visitor restrictions

Woman with disability dies alone after hospital refuses entry to support workers
WATCH: Woman with disability dies alone after hospital refuses entry to support workers

The family of a B.C. woman with a disability is calling for an investigation after she died alone at the Peace Arch Hospital.

In life, Ariis Knight’s family says she defied limitations.

The 40-year-old had cerebral palsy and was non-verbal, but found her own way to communicate with her family and support workers.

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“She had a full range of facial expressions,” her brother David Knight told Global News.

“She was able to answer yes or no questions not with her voice but with her eyes.”

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Ariis was admitted to hospital April 15 with symptoms of congestion, fever and vomiting but did not have COVID-19.

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Her support staff were not permitted access due to restrictions put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She was never given the opportunity to have someone speak up for her in her time of need,” said David.

Not long after being admitted, Ariis was put on end-of-life care, and died days later.

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Her family alleges the hospital moved her to palliative care status without consulting them, and that Ariis couldn’t have consented, given her inability to speak.

David said he’s having difficulty processing how she felt alone in her final moments.

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Under normal circumstances, support staff from the Semiahmoo House Society would have accompanied clients in hospital around to clock.

But since pandemic restrictions were put in place, the society says its access to clients as “essential visitors” has been both unclear and inconsistent.

“We need to have people in hospitals such as our support worker who was able to interpret what Ariis was thinking and what she wanted,” said society executive director Doug Tennant.

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Tennant says he believes there are hundreds of similar cases across the province, where confusion about the rules has denied vulnerable patients access to their support system.

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“We’re in a crisis time,” he said. “This is not the time to have a conversation that goes back and forth for weeks.”

Asked about the policy Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said her “expectation” is that accommodations are being made.

“While I expect long-term care homes and acute care hospitals to make reasonable exceptions to visitor policies to support people with disabilities, I also trust the most responsible clinicians to make the decision about when exceptions are clinically necessary given each individual circumstance,” Dr. Henry added in a subsequent statement.

Tennant says there needs to be clear direction from the province and any ambiguity or room for interpretation could leave vulnerable patients with disabilities without vital support.

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In a statement to Global News, Fraser Health said medical staff decided Knight did not need extra help with communication.

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“Essential visitors includes anyone who is considered paramount to a patient’s well-being. In the event that communication with a patient cannot be facilitated, acute care staff would connect with family to access additional support for the patient,” said the health authority in a statement.

“In this case, medical staff determined that additional support for communication was not required.”

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Tennant argues that it took his staff two years to learn how to communicate with Ariis and wonders how medical staff could make that determination without a support worker or family to interpret.

Ariis’ brother said the health authority had no right to make decisions for his sister.

“How can my sister tell somebody she’s in pain when she can’t verbalize and they don’t understand she can communicate in other ways?” he asked. ​