Health officials say a man who died in the waiting area of a major Winnipeg hospital's emergency department may have been dead "for some time" before medical staff was alerted — 34 hours after he arrived.

The 45-year-old arrived by taxi at the Health Sciences Centre around 3 p.m. Friday from the Health Action Centre, a community health centre in central Winnipeg, where he had an earlier appointment, officials said. 

'We're quite shocked that this could happen.'—Dr. Brock Wright

He was found dead after midnight Sunday.

"It is a really tragic situation. We're quite shocked that this could happen," said Dr. Brock Wright, chief medical officer for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. "We've never had a situation like this before."

It appears the man was never assessed by a triage nurse and was not registered as a patient seeking care, Wright said.

Someone in the waiting room alerted the hospital staff that the man appeared dead, and that's when the man was finally seen by medical personnel, he said.

"There was reason to believe at that time that the patient had passed, had been dead for some time," Wright said.

"We don't know how long, but it's likely that the patient had been deceased for a period of time. I can't put a time frame to that."

Health officials did not release information on the cause of death.

'Really surprising'

It appears the man had some contact with other staff in the emergency department during his wait, Wright said, but the system depends on patients being processed by the triage desk, which determines whether a person needs to be seen immediately or can wait.

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A man was found dead in an emergency department waiting room, 34 hours after arriving at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre. ((CBC))

Two triage nurses are always on duty in the hospital's emergency room, Wright said, and a reassessment nurse is also on duty from about 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. to check on the condition of people who have registered in the waiting room.

He noted that emergency departments are often filled with people not looking for medical care — for example, family members of patients or homeless people who come in looking for a place out of the cold.

"There's lots of people in an emergency department at HSC at any given time who aren't only the patients waiting. But how this person could be there for 34 hours and go sort of undetected is really surprising to us and is the focus of our investigation," Wright said.

"Up until now, that reassessment nurse has not been responsible for keeping tabs on everybody who's in the department — the focus has been on the patients who are waiting to be seen — and that may be something that we want to look at."

An investigation into the death has begun with interviews of staff. It is expected to take about four weeks.