Medical staff who had abandoned hungry and desperately ill patients. An owner with a long criminal history. Thirty-one dead in less than one month — five from confirmed cases of coronavirus.
Across the country, nursing homes from British Columbia to Alberta to Ontario have been devastated by the lethal spread of the virus. This week, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, attributed about half of Canada’s deaths from coronavirus — at latest count, 1,193 — to long-term care homes.
The scale of deaths at these facilities has raised a difficult question: beyond the obvious insidiousness of a highly contagious virus, how has this been possible in Canada, a country with a vaunted universal health care system and a culture of humanism?
One person who is particularly qualified to answer that question is Dr. Susan Bartlett, a clinical psychologist and professor of medicine at McGill Medical School, who has counseled families about caring for their elderly parents and studies how to better help patients with inflammatory arthritis.
I spoke with her while reporting on the Résidence Herron catastrophe and discovered that she had a personal interest in addition to her professional expertise: Her 94 year-old mother, Betty Bartlett, was a resident at the Herron in a western suburb of Montreal where 31 people died and which is now under police investigation amid accusations of gross negligence.
Dr. Bartlett said nurses at the Herron tried to persuade her not to call an ambulance. Her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s but had been mobile only days before, was rushed to a hospital, where she eventually died of a stroke.
She told me the staff at Herron assured her the nurse responsible was fired and she decided not to take any further action. Like many Canadians, she said she had enormous deference for our health care system and, at the time, was loath to criticize it or blow a whistle. “It is profoundly troubling and deeply disturbing to me how broken this part of our health care system is and that I was unable to even protect my own mother from it,” she said.