Calgary

Disabled woman weighed 51 pounds when she died, mother's trial hears

Paramedics found a profoundly disabled woman lying cold and stiff in her Calgary home, surrounded by the smell of "feces, urine and decay," court heard as the woman's mother began her trial Tuesday on a charge of criminal negligence causing death. Warning: This story contains disturbing details.

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details

Melissa Couture, left, weighed only 51 pounds when she died of choking at the age of 38. Her mother, Patricia Couture, right, is being tried on a charge of criminal negligence causing death. This photo was taken between 2007 and 2009. (Court exhibit)

Paramedics found a profoundly disabled woman lying cold and stiff in her Calgary home, surrounded by the smell of "feces, urine and decay," court heard as the woman's mother began her trial Tuesday on a charge of criminal negligence causing death.

Melissa Couture, 38, weighed just 51 pounds when she died from choking.

Paramedic Jill MacEachern was the first witness at Patricia Couture's trial. She and her partner arrived at the southwest home shortly after Couture, 70, called 911 in April 2016.

MacEachern said she was told by Patricia that Melissa, 38, had cerebral palsy and had recently become immobile.

Melissa functioned at the cognitive level of a three- or four-year-old, according to an agreed statement of facts read aloud by prosecutor Kyra Kondro on the first day of the trial. 

Melissa was found lying on the living room sofa; some of her teeth had rotted to the gum line and some of her bed sores were so deep that the bone was exposed.

Patricia, who had been her daughter's primary caregiver for the disabled woman's whole life, was acting "anxious, erratic, nervous" at the time, said MacEachern​'s partner, Amanda Myers.

Melissa was found dead when the two paramedics arrived the day Patricia called 911. They found her dressed in pyjamas, wearing two adult diapers. There was blood on her pyjama bottoms.

Melissa lost half her body weight

Melissa had difficulty swallowing and had begun aspirating her food four years earlier, according to Dr. Maitreyi Raman. The expert in nutrition and gastroenternology had reviewed hospital records from July 2012.

At that time, Melissa was hospitalized with three new concerns: urinary incontinence, difficulty swallowing and a recent 15-pound weight loss. 

After reviewing those medical records, Raman said she was left with questions and said there should have been medical follow-up. There is no evidence Melissa ever saw a doctor after that.

Patricia Couture, left, was the sole caregiver for her daughter, Melissa, who had severe developmental disabilities. (Court exhibit)

Raman said she suspects a neurological disorder or event could have been the case of the new symptoms.

"It looked like maybe 2012 had been that turning point," said Raman.

Between 2012 and Melissa's 2016 death, she lost half of her body weight in what Raman characterized as a "dramatic weight loss."

Raman said, in her opinion, Melissa was not provided with adequate care for at least one year leading to her death and was in a state of starvation.

49 notebooks seized by police

On top of "severe, profound mental retardation and global developmental delay," Melissa also suffered hearing loss, visual impairment and body stiffness, according to the agreed statement of facts.

During the Calgary police investigation, officers found 49 notebooks kept by Patricia Couture. Information on alternative medicine, religious documents, family photos and unopened bottles of medication were seized.

As part of the investigation, officers also contacted various agencies to determine what, if any, help and support Patricia had sought. None of the support agencies had been contacted by Couture.

"Finances were not a barrier to Ms. Couture obtaining assistance for Melissa," reads the agreed statement of facts.

Provincial Court Judge John Bascom is presiding over the five-day trial, which is being prosecuted by Kyra Kondro and Chief Crown Sue Kendall. Defence lawyer Andre Ouellette represents Couture, who is not currently in custody.

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