The family of a Toronto woman admitted to hospital on suspicion of COVID-19 is demanding answers after an altercation with security that they say left her unconscious and in intensive care — with no word to her relatives until just days before she was dead.
For 11 days, as Danielle Stephanie Warriner lay alone in a hospital bed, her family had no idea where she was, no idea she’d been restrained by guards and no idea she’d never regain consciousness.
Five days after they were finally contacted, she died at age 43.
“I had no opportunity to communicate with her, I had no opportunity to support her,” her sister Denise Warriner told CBC News.
“Whether it was going to help her or not, she didn’t have anybody there … It absolutely tears me apart.”
Stephanie, as her family knew her, was the younger of two sisters. She was especially sensitive and wore her heart on her sleeve, Warriner remembers.
A turn for the worse
“She felt everything,” Warriner said of her sister, recalling how as a child she was fascinated with butterflies. One day, when the two girls came upon a dead butterfly in their backyard, Stephanie “just cried and cried and cried.”
“It affected her so deeply … And that’s the kind of person that she grew to be as an adult,” Warriner told CBC News.
But as the years went on, Stephanie Warriner struggled with bipolar disorder and substance abuse.
At the best of times, she was “spunky” and “laughed at her own jokes,” her sister said. But things took a turn for the worse after a breakup in March, with Stephanie ending up living in a shelter.
Then, in late April, she was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
On April 21, she was admitted to Toronto General Hospital with symptoms of pneumonia. But against the advice of doctors, she left the facility multiple times, only to be brought back by police.
She was released on May 5 after further tests for the virus came back negative. But by May 10, she was back at the hospital, delirious and short of breath.
What happened next — and how Stephanie Warriner ended up dead following an incident with guards — is now the subject of a Toronto police investigation, a coroner’s investigation and an internal review by the University Health Network (UHN), which includes Toronto General and several other hospitals.
Hospital staff let go, disciplined
For months, Denise Warriner has been trying to find out exactly what transpired after her sister was admitted to the hospital.
Now, CBC News has learned two people employed with the health-care network have been let go as a result of its internal review. Two others have faced “internal disciplinary action,” UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard said in an emailed statement Tuesday.
Whether the employees who were let go or disciplined were security staff or medical professionals, Howard would not specify. Nor would she say what kind of discipline they received.
The organization did not address specific questions about whether any protocol was broken, how many guards were allegedly involved or why Stephanie’s family wasn’t contacted for 11 days, saying UHN cannot discuss individual details outside a patient’s “circle of care.”
UHN also did not respond when asked about its policies around notifying emergency contacts.
“We are extremely sorry that this happened at UHN and are working with the family, the Coroner and the Toronto Police Service to ensure that this incident is fully understood and the appropriate actions are taken now and in the future,” the statement said.
It’s the first major development Warriner’s family has seen since her death — one her sister says they learned only from speaking with CBC News.
“This is complete news to me … I don’t think that shows a commitment to transparency,” Denise Warriner said.
Put into handcuffs, goes into cardiac arrest
According to what her family has been able to piece together from medical records, Stephanie made her way to Toronto General Hospital on May 10, with confusion and shortness of breath. Along with her mental health issues, she also suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a lung condition with symptoms that can resemble those of COVID-19.
This time, a doctor told her, she would need to stay put.
Not surprisingly to her sister, she tried to leave the next day.
Security was called to track her down, told she was possibly COVID-19-positive. By the time they found her, Stephanie Warriner had made it down to the hospital’s main floor.
How much of a physical threat must she have been 5’4, 120 lbs and unable to breathe?– Denise Warriner
According to records seen by CBC News, security located her outside a service elevator, where she became “combative.” She was handcuffed and shortly after, went into cardiac arrest.
She was revived and taken to intensive care, where she began having seizures. On May 20, she was transferred to Toronto Western Hospital, her family still unaware of what had happened to her.
‘How much of a physical threat must she have been?’
Meanwhile, Denise Warriner had been trying to track her sister down, making calls to police and various hospitals, and getting ready to file a missing person’s report.
“You knew who I was, you knew where I was and I was grasping at straws trying to contact her,” Warriner said, noting she was listed as her sister’s emergency contact and had been phoned during previous hospital stays.
But this time, it wasn’t until May 22 —11 days after the incident with guards — that Warriner finally got a phone call. It was Toronto Western Hospital — her sister was in intensive care with a brain injury.
By May 27, Stephanie Warriner was dead, leaving her family reeling and with many questions.
“How much of a physical threat must she have been [at] 5’4, 120 lbs and unable to breathe? Where is the reasonable threat assessment here?” Denise Warriner asked.
She also asks why the hospital didn’t issue a “Code White,” which would have sent in staff trained in de-escalation —something the hospital would not comment on when asked by CBC News.
“There’s just so many gaps, so much information missing … It smells like rotten apples,” Warriner said.
Denied access to video footage
CBC News has confirmed video footage of the incident exists — but so far, the family has not been allowed to see it.
Toronto Police have so far turned down Denise Warriner’s requests to view the footage, she says, telling her instead to file an access to information request. That request was denied.
Meanwhile, she’s sent a letter to Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and the detective in charge of the case, pleading for the video to be shared with the family.
In a statement, Toronto police said they have received a letter from the family’s lawyer and are conducting a “sudden death investigation and are thoroughly reviewing all of the circumstances around it.”
“The investigators remain in contact with the family and will continue to update them as appropriate while maintaining the integrity of the investigation,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, as Warriner’s fight for answers continues, she finds herself again in the role of Stephanie’s bodyguard, as she was when they were kids — only this time, her sister is no longer here to ask for help.
“It just hurts my heart, it really hurts my heart,” she said.
“She had walked into a hospital to access help … and she leaves on her deathbed.”
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