Health minister meets with family of Amber Athwal

Alberta's health minister has met with the family of a four-year-old Edmonton girl who suffered permanent brain damage after she was put under general anesthetic during a dental procedure in September.

'As sad as it is to see a family that is in a time of struggle, it's also very hopeful,' Sarah Hoffman says

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman says regulatory concerns in the dental industry were not on her radar until the Amber Athwal case came to light. (CBC Edmonton )

Alberta's health minister has met with the family of a four-year-old Edmonton girl who suffered permanent brain damage after she was put under general anesthetic during a dental procedure in September. 

Amber Athwal was deprived of oxygen while under anesthetic in a dentist's office on Sept. 7.

Minister Sarah Hoffman met with the family for the first time Wednesday, at Amber's bedside in the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital.

"I mostly listened," Hoffman said after Wednesday's meeting. "I listened to their journey. How it started.

"We also talked about how they're hopeful for the future but they're nervous about how they're going to get there."

Hoffman said the family was interested to know what programs were available to them as their daughter transitions back to life in the family home.

The conversation also focused on the family's questions about regulations for the industry, and how the dentist involved in the procedure was allowed to work without an anesthetist to assist.

College has since changed policy

On Monday, the Alberta Dental Association and College announced an immediate change to the policy that allowed dentists to both administer general anesthesia and operate on patients at the same time.

The Alberta dental college said its decision was unrelated to the Athwal case, and that it had been reviewing its regulations for more than a year.

Despite widespread criticism of the "lone operator" policy, Hoffman said the issue was never on her radar, until now.

She plans to meet with the college to investigate the new policy and see what other changes might be necessary to improve patient safety.

"It hadn't been on my desk," Hoffman said. "But it's interesting for me to be able to learn about some of the best practices and how they evolve. It sounds like it's one step that could improve safety, moving forward.

"I'll be happy to move discussions forward, but I definitely think the college has a role to play in governing their association and their members."

Amber's family members say an MRI has shown the girl suffered a permanent brain injury. But the severity of the damage has yet to be established. Amber remains unconscious.

Hoffman says said situation would be "scary" for any parent. 

"As sad as it is to see a family that is in a time of struggle, it's also very hopeful. And they are very hopeful," Hoffman said.

"They have a long road ahead of them and they want their daughter to live an inclusive life, and I want that for her as well."
Amber Athwal, 4, at her family's Edmonton housewarming party in early September. (Athwal family)