Relatives of elderly residents who died in grim circumstances when COVID-19 struck the Herron nursing home in Quebec are preparing a formal complaint with the professional organization of three doctors who worked there, faulting them for failing to provide care in person during the crisis.
The move comes a year after provincial prosecutors announced they would not file criminal charges in connection with Herron, where 47 residents died in squalid conditions in the spring of 2020.
A long-term care home located in Montreal’s West Island, Herron made headlines across the country when staff fearful of the new virus deserted the facility and left enfeebled residents dehydrated and lying in their own human waste.
“We knew how bad things were. So we were certainly expecting some degree of accountability,” said Joe Richard, whose father, Joseph, was among the deceased residents.
“Everybody is just sort of sitting there left holding the bag,” said Moira Davis, daughter of deceased Herron resident Stanley Pinnell, explaining that some of the families then decided to file a complaint with the Quebec College of Physicians.
Patrick Martin-Ménard, a lawyer specializing in medical liability cases, confirmed that he was preparing a complaint. It is expected to focus on the fact that the doctors worked remotely while Herron was overwhelmed by the coronavirus.
“The doctors didn’t show up, it was highly problematic,” Mr. Martin-Ménard said in an interview.
Coroner Géhane Kamel, who presided over an inquest that looked into events at Herron, said in her report that many residents would not have died in such a gruesome fashion if the home’s owners, the provincial Health Department and the local health authority had worked together better.
The report added that, “while there was an acute shortage of medical knowledge, the physicians who normally dispensed care at Herron were working remotely. This led to imprecise care, end-of-life care being initiated without medical assessment, errors and lack of treatment.”
The three doctors – Orly Hermon, Antonia Ionescu and Lilia Lavallée – testified at the inquest that during the first days of the pandemic, they didn’t consult in person because they were following a recommendation from their professional federation to minimize contact with patients.
They said that, because of the shortage of personal protective equipment, they didn’t want to spread the virus to their other patients. “If I had the equipment I would have spent my nights there [at the Herron],” Dr. Ionescu testified.
Dr. Hermon and Dr. Ionescu declined to comment for this article. Dr. Lavallée did not answer a message left at her workplace.
Police and prosecutors waited 10 months, until after the May release of Ms. Kamel’s report, to explain to families why they chose not to press charges.
During a June 13 video call, they told relatives that the burden of proof was too high for a conviction in criminal court and that they were better off pursuing other avenues for redress.
Police and prosecutors said that, despite reviewing medical files and even checking surveillance camera footage to track the movements of staffers, investigators couldn’t attribute any resident’s death to a specific person.
“They made it clear from the onset that … they had to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt the neglect or criminal intent by people that were involved,” Mr. Richard said.
The families were, however, able to receive compensation last year from Herron’s owners as part of a $5.5-million class-action settlement.
After legal fees, the estates of the 47 deceased residents received about $26,000 each. Another 85 residents who survived were entitled to $19,000 each.
Fourteen surviving spouses were each awarded $17,500, and 94 children of deceased residents received $9,000 each.
The local health authority, known as CIUSSS, wasn’t sued. “It was just a strategic legal move that we made, but that doesn’t mean that the CIUSSS may or may not have had liability as well,” said Arthur Wechsler, the lawyer who represented the families in the class-action suit.
The coroner’s inquest heard that CIUSSS took over Herron but did not properly control the situation for 10 days because of bureaucratic delays and quarrels with the home’s management.
The civil suit focused on Herron’s owners, Mr. Wechsler said, because there was “a direct link and a cause of action.”
Two years after the tragedy, Mr. Richard said he would “sleep better” if what happened at Herron could have led to improvements to the elder care system in Quebec. However, many challenges remain. There are currently more than 4,300 Quebeckers on standby for a long-term care bed.
Mr. Richard recalled that it was because his father had been languishing on a waiting list for two years that his family eventually opted to move him to Herron, a private facility.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow to say that, at some point, I need to put this behind me,” he said.
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