Medical transfers to RCMP discussed at inquest

Yellowknife RCMP are frustrated with medical privacy legislation that makes it difficult for officers to know the condition of a patient that's being transferred into police custody, an officer tells a coroner's inquest.

Yellowknife RCMP are frustrated with medical privacy legislation that makes it difficult for officers to know the condition of a patient that is being transferred to police custody, an officer told a coroner's inquest on Thursday.

Staff Sgt. Brad Kaeding told the Raymond Eagle inquest that he would also like to see a detox centre set up in Yellowknife to help care for intoxicated persons.

Tom Eagle with his son, Raymond Eagle, at Stanton Territorial Hospital in 2007. Raymond Eagle had slipped into a coma in August 2006 and never recovered. He died in January 2010. ((CBC))

Eagle, a 48-year-old homeless man from Yellowknife, slipped into a coma in August 2006, after he had spent about 10 hours in the RCMP detachment's drunk tank. He never recovered from the coma and died in January 2010.

The inquest, taking place in the N.W.T. capital this week, heard that Eagle was brought to the RCMP detachment from Stanton Territorial Hospital, where doctors treated a head injury he had sustained early in the morning of Aug. 3, 2006.

Eagle was intoxicated but otherwise conscious when he was seen at the hospital, the inquest has heard. He told some people that he had received the head injury from a fall, but told others that he had been beaten up.

Had little medical information

Kaeding testified that the officers who brought Eagle to the RCMP detachment had little, if any, medical information about his condition.

Kaeding said since 2006, the RCMP in Yellowknife has adjusted its policies to include information on how to recognize the signs of a head injury.

Police have also revamped its prisoner admission form to include space where an officer can note any medical instructions related to someone being placed in custody.

But even with those changes, Kaeding said there needs to be better communication between medical staff, RCMP officers and guards about the condition of someone who's being transferred from hospital to a police cell.

Rhoda Walsh, manager of medical services with the Stanton Territorial Health Authority, told the inquest on Wednesday that there has never been a need for a hospital policy when it comes to discharging patients into RCMP custody.

Under the health authority's privacy policy, police do not have access to patient records, Walsh said.

Inquest counsel asked Walsh if there was a way to create a form that could travel with a patient as he or she is being transferred into police custody. Walsh replied that having such a form would be reasonable.

Blood clot on left side of brain

The inquest has heard that about 10 hours into Eagle's time in the RCMP cell, he began vomiting blood and later lost consciousness. He was airlifted from Yellowknife to Edmonton for treatment.

A family photograph of Raymond Eagle. A coroner's inquest into his death began Monday and runs through this week. ((CBC))

Dr. John McKean, the neurosurgeon who operated on Eagle at the University of Alberta Hospital, testified on Wednesday that Eagle was unconscious and unresponsive when he arrived.

A specialist in treating subdural hematoma — blood clots in the brain — McKean said he diagnosed Eagle with an acute subdural hematoma that covered most of the left side of his brain.

McKean said he removed most of the blood clot, but Eagle's condition did not change.

McKean testified that such blood clots often appear as the result of trauma, but alcoholics and older people are more prone to them.

Eagle could have received the injury from falling, but it's more likely that he was beaten, McKean testified.

Heart disease was cause of death

But Alberta chief medical examiner Dr. Graeme Dowling, who performed a full autopsy on Eagle, testified that it was actually heart disease — specifically, the narrowing of the arteries around his heart — that eventually killed him.

Dowling said he did find significant scarring from an old head injury on the left side of Eagle's brain. That injury could have been a contributing factor in Eagle's death because it may have added stress on his heart, Dowling said.

How Eagle sustained the 2006 head injury remains unclear. Dowling testified that it's too late to tell for sure what caused Eagle's last head injury, since so much time has passed.

RCMP counsel asked Dowling if head injuries sustained from a fall could resemble injuries from an assault, but Dowling said it can be very difficult to distinguish between the two, in part because injuries from multiple falls can actually look similar to assault injuries.