Quadriplegic Cree man sues Alberta Health claiming abuse, discrimination

It took months for her to find out where the smell was coming from. And when she did, she wished she could close her eyes forever.

Gerald Francis developed deep pressure wounds that required emergency surgery and threatened his life

Florence Youngchief has been fighting for better care for her partner of 11 years. (CBC)

It was a long time before she found out where the smell was coming from. And when she did, she wished she could close her eyes forever. 

Florence Youngchief visited her common-law husband every week at the Wetaskiwin hospital. 

His spirits were often low. After a fall down the stairs two years ago, Gerald Francis lost all feeling in his arms and legs and could only shrug his shoulders and turn his head. 

She noticed the smell after a few weeks. It was like poop, unclean. Nursing staff reassured her that he needed a diaper change and would have her leave the room.

Five months later, during an appointment at a different hospital, the doctor noticed it too. And when nurses stripped Francis down in front of his wife - she couldn't believe what she saw. 

Huge pressure sores. Eight in total. One stretched up the right side of his body.

Youngchief could see his rib bones through the flesh. Other sores were on his buttocks, his heel, his arm, his thigh. Deep and oozing. 

"That's where that smell was coming from. They were just yellow and green. Infections, like," she said. 

"My husband was laying there asking, 'Honey, what's going on?'" 

But all she could do was cry. 

Serious allegations

The doctor who found the wounds ordered emergency surgery, writing "the outlook for the client is very dismal." 

Francis's family reported his case to the provincial government's Protection for Persons in Care soon after.

Acting director Anita Sieben then signed off on an investigation that found evidence of abuse, defined as "an act or omission that results in failing to provide adequate nutrition, adequate medical attention, or another necessity of life without a valid consent, resulting in serious bodily harm."

Francis was admitted to the Wetaskiwin hospital in January 2014, where he was allowed to use a wheelchair that didn't properly fit him for four months. 

Gerald Francis listens to music with his common law partner Florence Youngchief. (CBC)
By February, he had developed eight pressure wounds. The wound on his buttocks was continually contaminated by fecal matter. 

Staff at the hospital had a meeting on February 27, 2014, about what to do next. But neither Francis nor Youngchief attended. And there was no evidence they were invited. 

In April, his nursing team at the Wetaskiwin hospital told investigators, they came up with a schedule to turn him at night.

27 months and no wheelchair

Francis requires two wheelchairs. But more than two years after his accident, he has none.

He is a Treaty 6 member, which makes him ineligible to apply to the provincial government for funding for a wheelchair.

But he could potentially get funding through the federal government's non-insured health benefit for First Nations and Inuit. And applying for that funding was exactly what Sieben's report recommended. 

"The parties involved all need to know what equipment is required and how to access and fund the client's equipment requirements," she wrote in her letter last December.

But Youngchief said there has been no action. Francis is currently admitted to the University of Alberta Hospital, awaiting a long-term placement. 

"I just want a better change," she said. "I just want my husband to be treated like any other person."

Francis has now filed a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the provincial health system, naming as defendants Health Minister Sarah Hoffman, several doctors and hospitals and the office of Protection for Persons in Care.

Alberta Health Services and Alberta Health say they cannot comment due to privacy and legal concerns. 

'Deplorable, unnecessary and tragic'

"Our health care system is such that people don't have the knowledge, time or experience to provide the care that's needed to prevent those types of things from occurring," said Guy Coulombe, the manager of programs and services with Spinal Cord Injury Alberta. 

"It's tragic. It's preventable. It's unnecessary. And it's our health-care system not providing the basic needs."

He said health-care workers don't have enough knowledge of the severity of pressure sores and the ongoing problems they can lead to - even death. 

"If you don't catch the skin when it gets red, it can take months to heal. And that's at huge cost to the health-care system," he said.

In his 30 years with the organization, he has seen 80 to 90 people with spinal cord injuries die due to infections from pressure sores. 


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