Father of brain-damaged girl says he needs public support to get answers

Ramandeep Athwal is ready to stage a protest at the offices of the Alberta Dental Association and College and says the public must join him if he is ever to learn what happened to his four-year-old child.

Alberta Dental Association and College hasn't provided findings of its investigation

The father of Amber Athwal speaks about the Alberta Dental Association and College backing away from releasing investigation into why his 4-year-old daughter suffered brain damage during a dental visit. 1:03

A father is ready to stage a protest at the offices of the Alberta Dental Association and College and says the public must join him if he is ever to learn what happened to his four-year-old daughter.

Seated outside the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Ramandeep Athwal said the organization has told him it won't provide him with findings of its investigation into the dentist visit that left his daughter Amber with permanent brain damage.

"If one person is asking, I think they don't want to answer," Athwal said. "If everyone is asking the same question, they have to answer. They are sitting in their offices for us, not for themselves. They have to answer us."

The Alberta Dental Association and College has been investigating since Amber visited the downtown dental office of Dr. William Mather on Sept. 7. She was put under general anesthestic and, at some point during the procedure, she stopped breathing for an unknown amount of time. Few other details of what happened have been confirmed.

The girl remains unconscious and stays almost full-time at the Glenrose.

Amber Athwal dressed up for kindergarten orientation day and a trip to the dentist on Sept. 2 (Athwal family)

The Alberta Dental Association and College has said its investigation into Amber's case was a top priority and that outside investigators had been called to assist. But the investigation is not yet complete, and it's unclear when it will be.

Athwal said he received a call last week from the group's complaints director.

"She said to me that they are not going to deliver any report or their investigation findings to us or our family. The only answer to the question of 'Why not?' is that they don't have to."

Amber has permanent brain damage and her parents have quit their jobs to care for her. They are living on charity and making it through the days with the help of close family friends. 

"It feels really bad. Our whole family, whether they are back home or here," said Athwal, who is originally from India.

"We all feel very stressed, because almost 2½ months have passed and the entire public, and we, are unable to know exactly what happened, what went wrong in the clinic or with Amber, what stopped her breathing. That's the report we were waiting eagerly [for.]"

Dr. Randall Croutze, the dental organization's chief executive officer, told the CBC on Thursday that under provincial guidelines information can be made available once the investigation is complete.

Asked if that would include a full report on the investigation, a summary of the report, or a sentence about the report, he said, "It depends on what information is available."

He later added, "It's a multifaceted process and I don't want to pre-suppose the process of anything by indicating any timelines or what will or will not be made available. It can't be predicted at this time."

Not just a regulatory body

Athwal has lost faith in the entire process. He criticized the Alberta Dental Association and College as an organization, saying it's only working on behalf of the dentists who are members.

It's not the first time the organization has come under fire for being both a lobbying group for the province's dental industry and the regulatory body for Alberta dentists. Critics have said the dual nature of the organization presents a conflict of interest.

Most provinces have two separate organizations, one that acts as an industry association and the other as a regulatory college.

"There is a clear need for the college of dentists to separate themselves now from the association. This is another indication that having them together creates at least the appearance of a conflict of interest," said Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann.

There is a clear need for the college of dentists to separate themselves now from the association.- Liberal Leader Dr. David Swann

"The college is supposed to be acting very definitely in the interests of the public and the ethical practice of dentists. And the association is primarily there to serve the interests of the members."

He said the latest correspondence between Athwal and the college indicates the father needs to retain legal advice. 

"It makes it much more difficult and fractious to find out what they legitimately need to know."

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the Alberta Dental Association and College must be permitted to complete its investigation. But she said the Athwal family "deserves" to have their questions answered. 

"I want to know too, as an Albertan. I want to know what happened," Hoffman said.

Dentist continues to practise

Meanwhile, the dentist being investigated recently sent a letter to anesthesiologists in the city asking if they would like to act as medical director at his clinic and perform anesthetic services. 

In his note, Mather stated that "nothing" unusual occurred during the procedure. He also claimed he had appropriate support staff and that a nurse was with Amber during her recovery when it was noted she was in distress. At that point, CPR was performed on her. 
Dr. William Mather talks to a staff member in his office. (Janice Johnston/CBC)

Mather has been suspended from administering general anesthesia while under investigation. The Alberta Dental Association and College has also suspended its rule that permitted dentists such as Mather from both administering anesthetic and performing a procedure on a patient at the same time.

The change came a week after CBC reported that Alberta was just one of two provinces in Canada allowing the "lone operator" practice. 

'We're only thinking of Amber's future'

Athwal said there are "new challenges every single day." 

The family needs to buy an accessible vehicle to bring Amber home for weekend visits. They need to modify their home for a child who is severely disabled. And they need to help their younger daughter, who does not know how to react to the situation. 

Amber is pictured at her family's Edmonton housewarming party in early September. (Athwal family)

'I believe in God and the support of the public. That's the only way I'm dealing with all of this together. I'd like to request the people to keep on standing with us so that we can continue, and together we can fight this battle," Athwal said.

"We're not thinking of our lives right now, we're only thinking of Amber's future and we're trying to give her every comfort that she can get. We try to sit at the side of her bed so she won't feel lonely as she gains consciousness."