This story is part of a series examining systemic discrimination against Indigenous patients within the nursing profession in B.C. To read Part 1 of the series, click here.
By the time Penny Kerrigan arrived at Mills Memorial Hospital in northern British Columbia, she says the morphine she’d been given before her medevac flight from Haida Gwaii had worn off.
“I was in extreme pain,” said the Haida elder, who served as B.C.’s community liaison officer for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
She’d been flown to the hospital in Terrace, B.C., from her home community of Old Masset on Oct. 19, 2020, after a doctor told her she needed a CT scan to determine the cause of her severe stomach pain.
Kerrigan didn’t know it then, but she was suffering from appendicitis that would soon require emergency surgery.
However, instead of receiving a CT scan or any diagnosis for the painful and potentially fatal condition, Kerrigan says she was discharged from hospital into an unfamiliar city in the middle of the night.
She alleges she was treated roughly and dismissively by the nurses she saw, was refused prescription pain medication and given only regular-strength Tylenol to deal with her discomfort.
“I have been to many different hospitals,” she said. “I’ve never — never — experienced anything like that.”
Kerrigan filed a human rights complaint against Northern Health over her treatment that day, alleging anti-Indigenous discrimination by the doctors and nurses she encountered.
In July, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal released a decision approving the health authority’s application to add the doctor who saw Kerrigan that night as a defendant.
Kerrigan spoke to CBC as part of a series about anti-Indigenous racism within nursing, and how the province’s largest regulator of health professionals, the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives, says it’s trying to address that pervasive problem.
She said education on the history of Canada’s discriminatory, oppressive and abusive policies regarding Indigenous people needs to be a priority for anyone who wants to be a nurse, along with training and accountability to wipe out dangerous stereotypes.
“Maybe because I came from an Indigenous community … I felt that they thought that I was drug seeking,” Kerrigan said of her experience in the hospital in Terrace, a small city around 700 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.
“How could they do this to me? How could they do it to anybody? It doesn’t matter what colour your skin is.”
Health authority denies discriminating
According to the tribunal’s decision, Northern Health has denied discriminating against Kerrigan and claimed its treatment of her was appropriate and reasonable.
The health authority said all assessments and treatment orders are made by physicians like Dr. Daniel Abraham Beer Torchinsky, the doctor who discharged Kerrigan.
Northern Health declined to comment while the case is still before the tribunal. Torchinsky has not responded to multiple requests for comment made through his lawyer.
Kerrigan alleges that staff at Mills Memorial Hospital were immediately hostile after learning she’d come from Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago around 100 kilometres off B.C.’s North Coast. She also said a nurse was unnecessarily rough with her while inserting an intravenous line, leaving her with multiple bruises.
Then, when she asked to talk to a surgeon she’d seen on a previous visit, she was allegedly told the surgeon was no longer at the hospital — which was not true, according to the July tribunal decision.
After Kerrigan was released late at night with no place to go, she managed to find a cab and get a room at a local hotel.
“I was up all night in pain and I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
WATCH | Penny Kerrigan discusses alleged bias at B.C. hospital:
Penny Kerrigan, who has filed a human rights complaint over her treatment at a B.C. hospital, talks about being discharged without a diagnosis, treatment or adequate painkillers for her appendicitis.
Distraught about her experience in Terrace, she tried to make plans to fly to Vancouver and seek treatment at a hospital there.
But after Kerrigan’s condition continued to worsen and her daughter spoke to hospital administrators, Kerrigan agreed to return to Mills Memorial, the tribunal decision says.
She says when she arrived that morning for her second visit, different nurses were on shift and she was treated with kindness and respect.
She also learned that the surgeon she’d seen previously was still at the hospital, contrary to what she’d been told.
“He reviewed the X-rays and saw that I had appendicitis,” Kerrigan said.
She had emergency surgery to remove her appendix that day.
‘I’m not after money’
Kerrigan says the experience has left her feeling anxious and fearful about seeking health care.
Since her appendix was removed, she’s had to be rushed to the emergency room at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver after an allergic reaction to shellfish.
“I had that moment, of, ‘Oh my God, I hope they’re good nurses.’ As I went into the room and the paramedics left, that’s where the trauma started,” she said.
Thankfully, Kerrigan says, the nurses she saw that day were caring and competent, but she was still on guard throughout her visit.
At this point, she doesn’t have a timeline for when her human rights complaint will be heard. The tribunal is still facing a significant backlog, in part because of complaints related to COVID-19 masking and vaccine policies.
But Kerrigan says she’s told her lawyer she’s in it for the long haul.
“He actually asked me what I wanted and I said, I’m not after money. I said, they need to change their policies. This is not only racism, this is systemic discrimination,” she said.
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