Many Canadians, me included, were shocked this week as harrowing details mounted about Montreal’s Résidence Herron nursing home: 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 told me that in November 2018, she returned from a five-day trip to Baltimore for American Thanksgiving to find her mother semi-comatose, dehydrated, wearing street clothes with a nightgown over her top and near death. She said no one had been in to check on her for days.
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.
Dr. Bartlett had done stringent due diligence before putting her mother, a daughter of Italian immigrants who loved to cook her special meatballs for her two granddaughters, at the Herron. She visited half a dozen nursing homes and interviewed Herron’s medical staff. She even consulted a specialist in placing seniors in homes. In the end, she decided on the Herron, which charged her mother 6,500 Canadian dollars a month. Dr. Bartlett was originally impressed by its diligent staff, and services that included a beauty salon.
Today, Dr. Bartlett laments that even her extensive research failed to turn up the criminal record of the residence’s owner, Samir Chowieri, who in the 1980s served 15 months in prison for drug trafficking and had been convicted of fraud. One of his retirement homes was later the subject of a money-laundering investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Had any of this criminality been exposed I would’ve never put my mom there,” she told me.
But there was a reason for the lack of a paper trail: In 2014, Mr. Chowieri was successful in obtaining a pardon and having his criminal record expunged. The Quebec premier, François Legault, this week said it was “unacceptable” that a person convicted of serious crimes ended up running a home for the elderly, and asked why there were rigorous background checks for employees of long-term care facilities in Quebec but not for owners.
Dr. Bartlett said that while her mother’s care had initially been satisfactory, conditions at the residence deteriorated as the owners went on an aggressive cost-cutting spree and struggled to find qualified staff.
She attributed the 31 recent deaths to the fact that, as Covid-19 spread and the residence was locked down, relatives of families were not able to visit and act as advocates for their loved ones. That in turn helped create a “perfect storm of neglect,” when overstretched and depleted health care workers, fearful of the virus and lacking sufficient protective equipment, fled.
Yet Dr. Bartlett said it was hard to fathom that the body bags leaving the residence did not raise alarms sooner. “Why didn’t anyone scream at the top of their lungs?” she asked.
Katasa, the company that owns the Herron, has denied negligence at the residence and blamed the regional health authority for not heeding its calls for help. In an email on Friday, it said a majority of the deaths occurred after the authority took the residency under trusteeship in late March.
Multiple families who had relatives at the Herron told me in interviews that medical staff were far more attentive when family members were present in the building and could monitor things such as their parent’s medication and personal hygiene. Being there also allowed them to pick up some of the slack from overwhelmed workers.
Peter Wheeland had both of his parents at the Herron for several years until he recently moved his father, who suffered from vascular dementia, to another facility. His father died in April after contracting coronavirus. He told me that during the recent staff shortage, his mother, Connie Wheeland, 87, had received a food tray from a sympathetic neighbor who had since tested positive for Covid-19.
Mr. Wheeland said he had been so frustrated by the Herron’s refusal to test his mother for the virus — and so fearful for her health — that he took her out of the home last week.
“Leaving old people in these homes and cutting them off from families is like locking them in a cage with the disease and leaving them to die,” he said.