A Nova Scotia woman says her mother-in-law died after she left an emergency room where she waited for seven hours before giving up.
Now she’s gathering stories from Nova Scotians with similar experiences to spark change in the province’s health-care system.
“I did not think I would be sitting in this chair yesterday morning, advocating potentially for better health care,” said Katherine Snow from Port Caledonia in Cape Breton.
“But I’ll do it for my mother-in-law, and I’ll do it for my daughter who is missing her nan.”
Snow’s mother-in-law, Charlene, arrived at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in the early afternoon of Dec. 30, 2022 with “intense jaw pain” and flu-like symptoms.
Snow said Charlene had been ill in bed for days, and having heard of overcrowded hospitals in the past weeks, she didn’t want to endure the wait times.
Nonetheless, she “mustered up the energy to go” that Friday.
“We stayed in frequent touch with her because she was in there by herself. My husband offered to come in and sit with her… But she said it was so full that there weren’t any seats for anyone to sit down and keep her company,” Snow said.
The 67-year-old woman waited seven hours before giving up and calling her husband, Freddie, for a drive home, Snow said.
“It just became too uncomfortable for her,” she said. “She decided that she would leave and try her luck at the local outpatient clinic the next morning.“
Charlene didn’t make it to the next morning; Her heart stopped just an hour after leaving the hospital.
In the obituary, Charlene Snow’s family described her as the matriarch of the family, the “glue.” She’s remembered for her “extremely kind heart, hilarious wit and contagious laugh.”
Her family has gone through several stages of grief in the past 12 days.
“We definitely experienced shock and then sadness. And now I think… we’re definitely in the in the part where we’re angry.“
In an email statement from the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness, Minister Michelle Thompson said she was “deeply saddened” to hear about Charlene’s passing.
“I wish to extend my sincere thoughts and condolences to the family during this difficult time.”
Katherine Snow said her family spoke to a patient advocate department to request a review of what happened that night. Just before speaking with Global News, she received a note from an ER physician at the Sydney hospital saying that they are looking into it.
“We just want to know what happened,” she said. “It would be reassuring for us if we knew that everything was done that could have been done. And if not, we want to know why things weren’t done that could have been done.
“It’s a big part of the grieving process for us because it was so sudden.”
Thompson confirmed in the email to Global News that Nova Scotia Health conducted an initial review as soon as they became aware of the incident.
“There is now a formal investigation to determine what happened. The results of the investigation will be shared with the family when complete and the recommendations from the investigation will be acted on,” the statement read.
“I know firsthand that we have very skilled healthcare professionals that work in our emergency departments and across the healthcare system that work tirelessly to provide Nova Scotians the care they need and deserve,” the minister said, in part.
“I know the healthcare system has been under immense pressure for some time, including the wait times in emergency departments. I want Nova Scotians to know we are committed to getting answers. Despite the pressure, I am urging Nova Scotians: please continue to seek care when you need it.”
Later in the day, an emailed statement from Premier Tim Houston read:
“My heartfelt condolences go out to the family. This is a terrible loss for them, their friends and the Cape Breton community.
I understand that Nova Scotia Health has started an investigation to determine what happened, and the results will be shared with the family.
I know that wait times in our emergency departments are concerning. I can assure you that the Minister of Health and Wellness and Nova Scotia Health are exploring all ways to improve patient access to care throughout our system when they need it the most. We will continue to update the public with our progress.”
Though the grieving family is angry about their sudden loss, Snow says the anger isn’t directed towards health-care workers.
“We understand that the staff that work within the health care system are suffering as much as the patients that need to take advantage of it,” she said. “We in no way want any anger or bad thoughts directed at staff members who are already working under such challenging conditions.”
What they do want are answers — and change.
Channeling grief into inspiring change
Thursday morning, Snow launched a website titled Nova Scotia Healthcare Crisis, which she hopes will encourage Nova Scotians with similar experiences to share their stories.
“We weren’t really sure what we were going to do when (Charlene) first passed away,” Snow said. “We knew that we didn’t want to let it go.
“We just didn’t want her death to be in vain. We didn’t want her to be another statistic.“
Earlier this week, Gunter Holthoff told reporters his wife waited for seven hours in excruciating pain at the Amherst hospital before she died. Her story shook the province and prompted one health advocate to warn the health-care system is in a “dire situation.”
It also prompted the Nova Scotia NDP to call on the province to conduct an inquiry into deaths in Nova Scotia’s emergency rooms, after receiving data showing there were 558 emergency room deaths recorded in 2022.
Snow said she had reached out to the Holthoff family, “to let them know that we get it and we understand and we experienced the same thing as they did.”
Her website will serve as a place where stories like theirs can have a home and be heard.
“I’m going to use the skills that I have to try to facilitate some kind of change in the health-care system,” she said.
It’s not just for families who have experienced tragedies, but also health-care workers who want to be heard.
“I hear you and I will give your story a home. I will give it a place to live,” Snow said. “They don’t have to give me their name… I just want this site to paint a clear picture of what’s happening in health care — on both sides of the fence.”
On Wednesday, she took to Facebook to call out for people’s stories, saying “We were robbed and it’s time that we are offered significantly better options for emergency care.”
The post got more than 320 comments and 1,600 shares, but it didn’t stop there.
“I was quite overwhelmed yesterday. My Facebook inbox was full, my email inbox was full, I received texts.” Snow said.
While it may take some time to organize people’s stories for the website, Snow said she hopes it’s seen by the province’s health officials.
“I hope that by reading actual stories that they will start to understand, and forge a path for change.”
If you have a similar experience from emergency rooms in Canada, we want to hear your story. Please reach out using the form below, and you may hear back from us.