The husband of a Nova Scotia woman who died after a seven-hour wait at the emergency department in Cumberland County said he felt they were “neglected” until “it was just too late.”
Allison Holthoff, 37, of Tidnish, N.S., was a beloved mother of three, avid community volunteer, animal lover and deputy chief of the local fire department.
“She was always happy to help people,” her husband, Gunter Holthoff, said during a news conference Monday.
“She was just a caring person for everybody. I wish somebody would have been there for her.”
Holthoff detailed how his wife had collapsed on the morning of Dec. 31, 2022, complaining of an upset stomach.
He chose to drive her instead of calling 911, because he didn’t want to wait for an ambulance, and headed for the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst, N.S.
She arrived at the ER at around 11 a.m. in so much pain her husband had to carry her.
“I think that she actually started saying that she thought she was dying in the waiting room outside. But she kept saying it more and more. She said, ‘I think I’m dying. Don’t let me die here.’ And I said, ‘No, that’s why I’ve got you in the hospital.”
While she was triaged relatively quickly, Allison was sent back to the waiting room to wait — barely able to sit in her wheelchair because of her pain.
“I did tell the triage nurse and the lady behind the desk at least a couple times that it was getting worse. She wasn’t doing good. She was in pain. And there was not much. The response was, ‘We’re doing what we can and we don’t have any beds,'” he said.
He recalled how security guards offered them blankets, and at one point, Allison said she wanted to lie on the floor.
“So I picked her up and slowly laid her down on the floor next to the wheelchair on this thin hospital blanket and she curled up in the fetal position.”
He said they waited more than six hours in the emergency department before Allison was taken to a room inside the unit, which had no medical equipment.
It would be another hour before she actually saw a doctor and received pain treatment.
While having an X-ray taken, Allison’s condition worsened.
Holthoff recounted how Allison screamed in pain while they tried to reposition her, and he tried to comfort her. Her eyes rolled back, he said, and the machines started beeping.
“The next thing I hear was, ‘code blue, code blue in the X-ray’ in the PA system and from then on pretty quick that room was full of people,” he said.
He was asked to leave the room, and was later told medical staff had to resuscitate Allison three times.
She was ultimately placed on machines, and Holthoff said he made the difficult decision to remove them.
“After a few hours, one of the nurses did approach me and said there’s not much there now. I’d seen the blood pressure. I didn’t think there was a chance she’d make it off the ICU,” he said.
He and his children were able to say their goodbyes, and Allison died at around 11:30 p.m.
“It didn’t matter at that point what I was saying, I knew it was over (but) the kids got a chance to say goodbye,” he said.
“Unfortunately, I feel like we were neglected until it was to a point they couldn’t ignore us anymore. At that point, it was just too late.”
Holthoff pointed out he still doesn’t know his wife’s official cause of death. He doesn’t have criticism for the health-care workers and medical staff, but rather the government’s handling of the system.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority has confirmed a quality review is being conducted, but says the process is confidential.
Michelle Thompson, the province’s minister of health and wellness, said Allison’s death is “a very, very heartbreaking situation.”
She told Global News she’s waiting to see the results of the review, and couldn’t speak to the specifics of the case. She added that any findings and recommendations would be shared with the Holthoff family.
“We want people to have safe and timely access to care across this province,” said Thompson.
“I don’t know the circumstances currently of the situation, but I want to assure Nova Scotians that our government is committed to improving health care, and we will continue to work across every level, across every community in order to ensure that that happens.”
When asked whether Nova Scotians should feel assured that they would receive adequate care when arriving at an ER, Thompson said they should.
“I would like to reassure Nova Scotians that they should present to the emergency room if they need care, that we have wonderful health-care providers here and we need to understand how best to support them, and the quality review will support us in doing that.”
Cumberland North MLA Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin has been working with the Holthoff family and was at Monday’s news conference.
On Sunday, she told Global News her constituents are growing more concerned with the state of health care in the region.
She said health-care workers have challenging conditions across the province, but in particular at the Cumberland Regional given a flood in May 2022 that forced a temporary ER to be set up.
“People are screaming for help and it’s not being brought,” she said.
“Whether it’s people waiting for hours on end for an ambulance that never comes, or it’s a situation like this where we have a young mother of three who has died waiting for care in our emergency department. So it’s time that people’s voices here in northern Nova Scotia are heard and listened to.”
Smith-McCrossin released a public letter to Premier Tim Houston on Monday, outlining some actions she’d like to see taken to improve access to care. The suggestions include having a dedicated health-care professional in the temporary ER waiting room and urgently completing renovations at the hospital’s main ER.
— with filed from Skye Bryden-Blom and Callum Smith