Winnipeg man files human rights complaint after caregivers denied access to hospital

Cam Slimmon has filed a human rights complaint after he was told the caregivers who help him communicate could not be with him while he was in hospital.

Cam Slimmon says experience at HSC in November was frightening, disappointing

Cam Slimmon says he was left feeling scared and unsafe after staff at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre told him his caregivers, who assist in communicating his needs, could not be present. (Submitted by Cam Slimmon)

A Winnipeg man has filed a human rights complaint after he was told the caregivers who help him communicate could not be with him while he was in hospital.

"It was frightening and disappointing," said Cam Slimmon, who spent six days in Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre in November.

Slimmon has a type of muscular dystrophy called spinal muscular atrophy. He works with experienced caregivers, including staff and family members, who assist him in communicating with others.

But for two nights or a total of 20 hours during his stay at HSC for major dehydration and a severe urinary tract infection, the hospital refused to allow his caregivers to be present due to COVID-19 policies, which Slimmon said left him feeling scared and unsafe.

"I was denied the right to communicate my needs and therefore denied 100 per cent safe, adequate care," Slimmon wrote in his human rights complaint.

"I am simply not raising this issue for myself. It has unduly affected many people and something must be done."

Throughout his stay at HSC, Slimmon said the communication from site management was ad hoc and unclear.

Slimmon was admitted to HSC's G6 unit — which treats people, like Slimmon, who use ventilators — in the early hours of Nov. 12. Initially, his caregivers were permitted to stay.

But on Monday evening, staff on the unit said his caregivers had to leave. The reasoning seemed to change over and over again, he said, ranging from arguments the hospital had its own staff to serve in that role to saying the caregivers didn't have adequate personal protective equipment.

"[It was] beyond frustrating and scary," Slimmon said.

'Not just visitors'

Only one nurse on the unit could understand him when he spoke, Slimmon said. Other staff weren't able to understand his needs.

At one point, he called for a nurse in the night, only to be visited by a health-care aide who couldn't understand him. When the aide finally realized Slimmon was asking for a nurse, the aide told the nurse it was a prank, Slimmon said.

"My attendants are basically an extension of me," Slimmon said in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Information Radio. "They are not just visitors."

On another occasion, a doctor explaining the hospital's decision on caregivers spoke directly to Slimmon's father, Earl, instead of to Slimmon himself.

In a statement on Monday, a spokesperson for Shared Health said the organization can't speak to individual circumstances due to privacy considerations.

"The pandemic situation requires decisions to be made each and every day which, while never easy, are necessary to provide the appropriate level of protection against the spread of this virus," the spokesperson said.

"Case-by-case exceptions will be considered and families and patients are encouraged to discuss their concerns with their care team or our patient relations department."

Slimmon said that sounds positive.

"However," he said, "it's not at all what happens."

The refusal of access to his caregivers wasn't the only issue Slimmon described during his stay at HSC. He also raised concerns about a lack of knowledge among staff on the G6 unit about proper procedures regarding his ventilator.

Staff seemed untrained or uncomfortable with even basic tasks, he said, such as suctioning or simply plugging in the power.

In his human rights complaint, Slimmon said regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, policies that are barriers to basic human rights must not be enforced.

"There must be exceptions made with a compassionate, common-sense approach by people who are directly involved in the management of the individual's care," he wrote.

"The strict enforcement of this type of overreaching blanket measures places great limitation on how people with disabilities can access the health-care system and ultimately does more harm than good."

With files from Carlos Sosa, Marcy Markusa and Aidan Geary