Lost… in an ER?

There is an incident which resurfaced in the news recently that has both embarrassed and outraged me: the inquest into a death. Five years ago, a double amputee in a wheelchair died in an Emergency Room after being overlooked -and neglected- for 34 hours! ( http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/08/06/brian-sinclair-inquest-waiting-room-death_n_3711355.html?utm_hp_ref=email_share ) No, this is not a woman’s issue -although it might as easily have been a woman- it is an everybody issue; it could happen to anybody… Or could it? Would it?

Imagine showing up in a hospital emergency room needing help and then being forgotten. Forgotten -or ignored? Avoided? Scorned..? I’m trying to find a word that describes it best. Maybe discounted… You see, the person was aboriginal and apparently had been there before: he struggled with substance abuse -as if that were an excuse to discount any pressing need to address his presence in the ER. As if he could be dropped to the bottom of the list before his needs had been properly ascertained… No, not dropped to the bottom of some arbitrary list – dropped from the list: a man crying wolf! Sometimes I am embarrassed to be identified with the Health Care system, or to call myself a doctor.

The lawyer for the Regional Health Authority -I suppose as a way of deflecting accusations of the obvious (the patient was aboriginal, homeless, prone to substance abuse, and probably known as such to the staff in the Emergency Department)- was quoted as saying “These events could have happened to anyone.” Oh really? Does he honestly think that if he had showed up in Emerg in a wheelchair -especially as a double amputee- he would have been overlooked? Expecting more, he would have demanded more. He might have had to wait -a hospital ER is a busy place and triage of patients according to the urgency of their conditions is both necessary and appropriate. But 34 hours? Only someone used to being ignored would not put up a fuss -even if they were dying…

Oh, and there are the video surveillance tapes of a man, alone, in a wheelchair, not causing a disturbance, patiently waiting his turn! Here’s a sample (with commentary) from the CBC news site: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/story/2013/08/26/mb-er-video-sinclair-inquest-winnipeg.html Or, how about this one: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/story/2013/08/28/mb-brian-sinclair-inquest-security-guard-winnipeg.html  Apparently the Emergency Department was not even terribly busy that night. My god how can this happen? How can someone disappear in plain sight?

Could it be that we see what we expect? Or maybe we don’t see anything? Triage is the assignation of priorities according to need, but might it also be a selection based on other characteristics at times: appearance, behaviour, demeanour… race? And in the case of this unfortunate man, I find it hard to believe that his past did not influence the assessment as well. We -all of us- drag our histories with us like shadows; heavy clouds that obscure the reality of who we are and what we need. Past and present look all too much alike if we are being judged through a glass darkly. We all see the world with heavily laden eyes. And it is only apparent when it is us who are being evaluated -or should I say interpreted.

But is there any wonder why minorities -be they cultural, social, or economic- have come to mistrust the pretense of equality proffered by those in power? An offer with conditions so tightly attached to appearance and normative expectations that many have chosen not even to seek help, fearful they will be treated differently. Disparagingly. Begrudgingly. Or not at all…


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