A former Iqaluit emergency room doctor who treated Elisapee Michael in 2009, after she had fallen down the stairs of a local hotel, has told a coroner's inquest that he regrets his decision to have her transferred to RCMP cells.
Michael 52, died of head injuries on Aug. 13, 2009, several days after she fell down the front stairs of the Nova Inn in Iqaluit. The Nunavut coroner's office is holding an inquest because she was put in RCMP custody after the fall.
Testifying by video conference from Invermere, B.C., on Tuesday, Dr. Bruce Johnson said he was in charge of the emergency room at Qikiqtani General Hospital when Michael was brought in by ambulance around 11:30 p.m. ET on Aug. 8.
Emergency responder Jamie Kennedy earlier told the inquest that he found Michael in a fetal position, breathing but not responsive, at the bottom of the stairs. He estimated that Michael had fallen almost a metre.
Both Kennedy and Johnson testified that they knew Michael had been drinking. The inquest was told that Michael was asked to leave the hotel's bar prior to her fall.
Johnson testified that he and medical resident Dr. Kelly Morris examined Michael and found flecks of blood on their gloves, but they could not locate the source of that blood.
Morris testified later on Tuesday that all of Michael's vital signs, like heart rate and blood pressure, were normal.
Transferred to police cells
Johnson said he noted swelling on the back of Michael's head as she started to regain consciousness, but he found no other physical signs of a head injury.
The doctor testified that he believed Michael's symptoms of agitation and a lack of balance were due to intoxication.
Morris, who testified by video conference from Amherst, N.S., said the original plan was to keep Michael in the emergency ward for observation, but that plan changed when the patient became uncooperative and disruptive.
Johnson said the medical evacuation plane was not available that night, and the hospital was full to capacity, so a decision was made at around 3 a.m. to transfer Michael to RCMP cells.
Morris testified that she was surprised with the decision to discharge Michael into police custody, since she thought Michael had done nothing of a criminal nature.
But Morris said she had seen patients being transferred from Qikiqtani General Hospital to RCMP cells on more than one occasion in the month before Michael's incident.
Johnson said he made his decision at the suggestion of nurses, although that was not official protocol.
Regrets clinical decision
Johnson said sending patients to police cells is a common practice and he believed Michael would be observed there, but he admitted that he had never visited Iqaluit's RCMP facilities before.
His voice wavering at times, Johnson testified that he terribly regrets his clinical conclusion that Michael would be OK until the next morning.
Kennedy told the inquest on Monday that he and other emergency responders were called to the RCMP detachment the next morning, as Michael was vomiting in her cell and lying in a position that indicates she had brain damage.
Michael was rushed back to Qikiqtani General Hospital, where Kennedy said the on-duty emergency room doctor openly questioned why Michael was released in the first place.
Michael was then flown to an Ottawa hospital, where she later died.
Morris testified that a CT scan could have revealed Michael's true injuries before she was sent to police custody, but she added that such technology is not available in Iqaluit.
The RCMP officers who were on duty when Michael was brought into custody are expected to testify on Wednesday.