Doctor demands answers after her dad’s death following Victoria Hospital care

A prominent doctor and author is enraged about her dad’s treatment in a Winnipeg hospital and is demanding answers about his death, now that the health authority has deemed it a critical incident.

“I don’t know what really happened because no one will tell us. The frustration is hard to explain because you’re just in this information void,” said Dr. Jen Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist who was born in Winnipeg and now lives in San Francisco.

Her 90-year-old father, Derek, was admitted to Victoria General Hospital at the end of December with pneumonia and sepsis. It took nearly a month for her family to hear from any physician about his status, Gunter said.

Communication was almost nil after that January conversation and her father’s health languished until he died March 28, she said.

“It was really a difficult time. He was 90 and obviously we were expecting something to happen at some point, but this just made everything so much worse,” said Gunter, a vocal advocate for women’s health and debunker of misguided beauty fads and health trends.

She is also the author of the book The Vagina Bible and star of the CBC Gem docuseries Jensplaining.

Gunter first told CBC News in February about her frustrations with the hospital.

She and her brother would call the hospital and leave messages that went unreturned. Her brother, who lives in Winnipeg, regularly visited their dad in the evenings and tried to get information, but the doctors were gone by then.

Gunter was unable to visit because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Whenever Gunter did manage to get someone on the phone, she was told the person in charge wasn’t around to talk.

At one point, her dad went into respiratory arrest and needed to be resuscitated.

He also developed bedsores.

“Those are things that are not supposed to happen. That means he wasn’t gotten out of bed enough and wasn’t given the care he needed,” Gunter said on Friday.

“It was really hard for me to know what care he had, because no one ever called us back. He just seemed to be deteriorating and we just couldn’t get any answers.”

Not only was he not getting out of bed to help his recovery, nobody seemed to be helping him eat, she said.

She called the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and an elder abuse hotline offered through the Protection for Persons in Care Office of Manitoba Health.

“I called [the abuse line] three times on Jan. 28 to report that my father was deteriorating and that I was a physician and I was really concerned that he was being abused,” Gunter said.

“No one has ever called me back from that office.”

She wasn’t able to have a conversation with the health region or Victoria Hospital staff until she started posting about the problems on Twitter on Jan. 29.

“Finally, after raising a public stink, people started communicating with us, but the answers I got were just something that made no sense to me, not just as a physician but as a person.”

For example, she was told they if she wanted her dad to have the kind of physical therapy needed for him to get better, she would have to pay for private treatment.

Gunter wants to know why hospital staff waited four weeks to say so.

“Is that standard? Does everybody in Winnipeg know that — that they’re not getting enough care when they go to hospitals?”

A social worker should have reached out to the family to help them navigate the situation, especially since her dad was elderly and unlikely to return to where he had been living before going into hospital.

“There was none of it. It just made me feel like he was insignificant to them,” Gunter said. 

Jen Gunter’s father was at Victoria Hospital for 28 days before someone spoke to the family, she said. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

She’s also irate that his request for hospice was denied.

“He did not want to die in a nursing home. That was the only thing he had control over, was where he died. They said he wasn’t sick enough for hospice and he was transferred to a nursing home,” Gunter said.

“Three or four days later he was approved for medically assisted dying. How can you not be sick enough for hospice but sick enough for medically assisted dying?”

She filed a complaint against the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority but has not seen the report.

“They apparently won’t send it to me so we’re not allowed to know. What we were told … was that there was a critical incident,” Gunter said. Critical incident is provincial legislation terminology for poor health outcomes caused by mistakes or other issues, such as bad communication.

She took to Twitter again this week to try to get better answers and to shame the health authority and the hospital.

“What prompted a new round of going public was basically the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority was shunting us back to Victoria Hospital, [saying] the chief medical officer and chief nursing officer were going to explain to us what happened,” Gunter said.

“We’ve already had family meetings with them since we were finally able to get people to talk to us.”

‘Absolute lie’

In a statement sent to CBC News, the WRHA said it has conducted a patient safety review of the care Mr. Gunter received at Victoria Hospital. The findings will be shared with his family shortly, and discussed with them at an upcoming meeting, the statement said.

“Although health-care officials are not at liberty to discuss details of an individual patient’s care with members of the public, we can confirm that senior representatives of Victoria Hospital have maintained regular contact with Mr. Gunter’s family, both during his hospitalization and since,” it said.

“That’s a lie. That’s an absolute lie,” Gunter said.

“The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority never reached out to me. That’s the truth.”

Gunter worries about how other people are dealing with the system.

“I’m a fairly well-known person with over 300,000 followers on Twitter. If I have to leverage every single trick that I have just to get some communication, that’s ridiculous,” she said.

People should be able to call to check on their loved ones and, recognizing hospital staff are busy, at least get a return call by the end of the day, she said.

“That does not seem to be an unreasonable request,” she said.

“Are they completely understaffed? Just don’t care? What’s the answer?

“I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through.”

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