Psychiatric patients suffering under COVID-19 restrictions at Grey Nuns hospital, parents say

The parents of a patient discharged from a psychiatric unit at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital last week say isolation and a lack of treatment options have left their daughter on death’s door.

Mental health patients face tighter restrictions than others, hospital staffer says

Edmonton's Grey Nuns Community Hospital stopped allowing visitors to enter its psychiatric units as of Nov. 20, according to an internal memo obtained by CBC. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

The parents of a patient discharged from a psychiatric unit at the Grey Nuns Community Hospital last week say isolation and a lack of treatment options have left their daughter on death's door.

Roberta Laurie's adult daughter was admitted to the hospital in south Edmonton on Sept. 19 when her weight became dangerously low due to her anorexia.

The young woman's condition worsened when visitors, including designated support people, were no longer allowed on the unit, her mother told CBC in a recent interview. 

By the time Laurie was able to obtain an exemption to visit her daughter on Nov. 30, the medical team said her daughter was close to death with only a few days left.

"I walked into that room and there she was. I hugged her and I was just hugging bones," Laurie recalled.

"I went home and I called her dad and I said, 'We have got to get her out of that hospital. She is dying.'"

CBC is not naming the daughter, in order to respect her wish for privacy. Her father's name is also being withheld, as they share the same family name.

The parents opted to bring their daughter home on Dec. 1 after being presented with a heartbreaking choice.

"Remain in the hospital, where her care team felt she was getting more damaged and there was a high probability that she would be dead by the weekend at the rate that she was losing weight, or send her home, where there was almost a guarantee that she will be dead by Christmas," said her father. 

"We chose the latter."

The decision was even more difficult to make since leaving the hospital meant losing access to his daughter's excellent care team, her father said.

"I knew once she left, there was never going to be another opportunity," he said. "The only way she'll end up back in the hospital is in the back of an ambulance."

Roberta Laurie says her daughter was a vibrant and happy child, with a stubborn streak. Her daughter, now an adult, lives with anorexia. (Roberta Laurie)

Stricter restrictions on hospital visits were enacted by Alberta Health Services on Nov. 25 in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

In areas under an enhanced status, such as Edmonton, hospital patients can receive visits from up to two designated support people. 

"We recognize that these restrictions are very difficult for patients, families, loved ones, staff and physicians," AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson wrote in a statement.

"These are temporary measures, implemented based on need, to help reduce exposure and spread of the virus in AHS facilities."

Isolation and a lack of treatment options have left their daughter on death's door

2 years ago
Duration 2:26
Roberta Laurie says her daughter's condition worsened when visitors, including designated support people, were no longer allowed on the unit at Edmonton's Grey Nuns Community Hospital.

AHS did not answer specific questions regarding the restrictions enforced at the Grey Nuns hospital.

Each site may have different restrictions depending on their circumstances and the ability to maintain physical distancing, the statement said.

Tougher restrictions for psychiatric patients

The restrictions on the Grey Nuns psychiatric units are more strict than on other units within the hospital, said a hospital staffer who spoke to CBC on condition of anonymity in fear of being fired.

"Other areas of the hospital that are not on outbreak for COVID-19 are allowing visitors," the staff member said. 

"They are allowing outside food to be brought in and they are allowing patients to be out of their room."

An internal memo obtained by CBC indicates that visits on the Grey Nuns psychiatric units were stopped as of Nov. 20.

The Grey Nuns Community Hospital is operated by Covenant Health, which did not respond to CBC's questions regarding why all visits were stopped at that time.

A Covenant Health spokesperson confirmed that the Grey Nuns psychiatric units have not experienced a COVID-19 outbreak.

Three other hospital units have been dealing with an outbreak since Oct. 30, with 13 patients and 21 staff members infected. There have been 15 deaths linked to that outbreak.

'Alone with her thoughts'

Spending most of her days alone in a room was the opposite of what his daughter expected when she checked herself into hospital to treat her anorexia, her father said.

"My daughter was trapped in basically a 10-by-10 room alone with her thoughts," he said. 

"It had a devastating impact on her. Instantly, the anxiety went through the roof, her ability to eat was just gone."

Therapies available to psychiatric patients through a variety of healthcare professionals, such as counselling, spiritual care and nutrition advice, have not been offered since March, the Grey Nuns staff member said.

Patients are invited to take part in one daily virtual group-therapy session instead. 

Recreational activities such as yoga classes and games have also been cancelled and patients can no longer eat in the dining room or spend time outside, they said.

"I've seen patients become very isolated, very depressed, very angry," the staffer said. 

"Many patients have left against medical advice or left the hospital earlier than we may have wanted them to because they just aren't satisfied with their treatment here."

Covenant Health did not respond to questions regarding the treatment currently offered to psychiatric patients.

Roberta Laurie hopes sharing her daughter's story will trigger changes to the Grey Nuns Hospital's ban on visitors to the psychiatry units. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Laurie hopes sharing her daughter's story will convince hospital management to look for other ways of offering meaningful treatment to patients.

"I see no reason why PPE can't be used, why social distancing can't be used, why there can't be compromises made so that these patients get the treatment that they not only need but deserve."

More supports needed

The impact of isolation on mental health is understood, said University of Alberta professor of psychiatry, Dr. Peter Silverstone. 

"Social isolation impacts everybody. If you're already vulnerable, already suffering from symptoms, it can make them worse."

Silverstone has no knowledge of the situation at the Grey Nuns, but given the spread of COVID-19 in Alberta, he understands why hospitals are being careful.

"You have to err on the side of caution and that can make it difficult for individuals who are more isolated than they would usually be."

The pandemic has increased the need for more mental health supports in the community, he said.

"The pandemic and the economic problems that arise from it, plus the existing problems economically in Alberta will lead to many, many long-term issues in a large number of people."

Finding proper care for her daughter has been an uphill battle for years, Laurie said.

"I want there to be more treatment options out there. I want there to be more early intervention so that we don't have to get to this point," she said.

She fears it may be too late for her daughter to get the help she needs. 

"Over the years, I've had to stop hoping because hoping hurts too much," Laurie said. "Hope is not a good indicator of the future."


Josee St-Onge


Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan.