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Patient-on-patient attack has family calling for safer hospitals

A Calgary-area woman is angry her dying father was punched in the face by a fellow patient, who was then allowed to remain on the same hospital floor, further endangering her dad and other patients.

Violent incidents in hospitals are increasing, but experts say attacks under-reported

Calgary-area woman says her father was hit by another patient, then allowed to remain nearby on the same hospital floor 2:19

A Calgary-area woman is angry her dying father was punched in the face by a fellow patient, who was then allowed to remain on the same hospital floor, further endangering her dad and other patients. 

"It's hard thinking about my dad and not being able to protect him. I [was] thinking he's in the hospital and he's well taken care of [but] he wasn't," Donna Hengerer told Go Public.

The case is one example of the increasing number of violent incidents in Canadian hospitals, and experts say staff aren't always trained or prepared to deal with it. 

Hengerer's 77-year-old father Gilbert Masson is in the final days of life. His cancer has spread from his lungs to his brain, and doctors have told the family he has weeks to live. He's often confused and can't get out of bed or his wheelchair.

Donna Hengerer worries that the man who punched her father is endangering other patients at the hospital. (CBC)

His daughter had been bracing herself for a call saying her father has died. But a couple of weeks ago, she got another call from the Foothills Hospital in Calgary — one she never expected. 

"They said he had been punched in the face by another patient," Hengerer told Go Public.

"So I rushed down there and find out it's another patient in the room next to him — a young man — who had wheeled up to him in the middle of the night and punched him in the face with no provocation."  

Gilbert Masson was confused and thought he was under attack when a fellow patient hit him. (CBC)

Hengerer said the hospital called security and kept the men apart for a while. She called police. 

Calgary police confirmed officers were sent to the hospital, but "due to various circumstances, including the medical condition of both parties involved, it was determined that charges would not be appropriate in this case."

"He had swelling over his left eye. He was very confused, he thought he was under attack, " Hengerer said of her father.

Nurses were "very attentive" to her father following the attack, and a hospital administrator called to apologize, she said.

"But all she could give me were apologies. She couldn't give me anything else." 

Attacker 'free to roam' says daughter

What Hengerer wanted was to have the other patient moved to a more secure part of the hospital. She said she was told that wasn't possible. Instead the hospital moved her father to another room, but it was just down the hall from the man who had punched him.

"This man is free to roam wherever he wants … if he is a danger as he's shown to be, he should be in a secure ward, and they never did that," Hengerer said.

Days after the attack, her father was moved to a hospice, where he is expected to live out his final days 

Hospital reviewing incident

Bruce Conway, senior media relations adviser for Alberta Health Services, told Go Public the health authority is "reviewing the circumstances surrounding this incident."

"This was an extremely unfortunate incident. The patient and family have our sympathy. The safety and security of patients and families we care for is our top priority," he wrote in an email to CBC News. 

Foothills Hospital moved Gilbert Masson to another part of the same floor, but he still wasn't far from the man who attacked him. (CBC )

Conway said the hospital made some changes since the incident, but he wouldn't say what action was taken in this case, citing patient confidentiality rules.

"Strategic unit staffing assignments to meet this assaulting patient's needs have been employed during his hospital stay. In order to minimize risk to other patients and staff, aggressive patients may be moved to a more secure area, confined to their room or placed under surveillance."

Conway said all patients are assessed for the level of risk they pose to themselves, staff and other patients. Depending on the patient's level of risk, he said, some patients are more closely supervised.

Hospital violence on trial 

One high-profile case of hospital violence is raising questions about security inside hospitals.

Idelson Guerrier is on trial in Montreal. The 33-year-old is accused of killing two patients inside the psychiatric ward of Notre Dame Hospital and attacking two others in 2012.

In some cases, hospital violence has led to change. 

On Vancouver Island, for example, the health authority implemented new rules around mixed-gender rooms after an 83-year-old woman with dementia was sexually assaulted by another patient at Cowichan District Hospital in 2012. 

There are many studies that have found violence against hospital staff is on the rise, but statistics for patient-on-patient violence are hard to find. 

The only national numbers come from Statistics Canada, but they don't differentiate between violent crimes involving staff and those involving patients.

Statistics Canada numbers show an increase in violent criminal incidents in Canadian hospitals — including murder, assault, sexual assault and more. 

The number of incidents increased from 2,526 in 2013 to 2,850 the following year.

Incidents 'under-reported,' says researcher

Those numbers reflect only the violent attacks reported to police, which is not the whole picture, according to Gloria Gutman, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University's department of gerontology. 

Gloria Gutman of Simon Fraser University's department of gerontology says there needs to be more training for hospital staff and reporting of patient-on-patient aggression. (CBC)

"It may be that this is one of those under-reported areas. It's one thing to have a patient attacking a nurse or medical personnel — it's quite another in terms of having to report an incident between patients," Gutman said.

She's calling for more secure units and more training for staff who deal with hospital violence. 

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About the Author

Rosa Marchitelli


Rosa Marchitelli is a national award winner for her investigative work. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, she has a reputation for asking tough questions and holding companies and individuals to account. Rosa's work is seen across CBC News platforms.


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