'It should never happen in a hospital': Quebec doctor testifies at Echaquan inquest

One of the doctors who treated Joyce Echaquan at the Joliette, Que., hospital last September testified at a coroner's inquest today that he still does not know what killed the Atikamekw woman.

Gastroenterologist believed Echaquan might be suffering opioid withdrawal

A coroner's inquest in Trois-Rivières, Que., is looking into the circumstances surrounding the death of Joyce Echaquan at a Joliette hospital in September 2020. (Marie-Laure Josselin/Radio-Canada)

A doctor who treated Joyce Echaquan the day before she died in a Joliette, Que., hospital last September told a coroner's inquest on Monday that he thought she was suffering from opioid withdrawal.

The 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven had filmed herself at the hospital northeast of Montreal, as female staff were heard insulting and mocking her not long before she died. The video of her seeking help and being ridiculed circulated widely on social media and prompted widespread indignation across the country.

Echaquan was transported to hospital from Manawan, Que., on Sept. 26, with severe stomach pain, and she died two days later. The inquest is examining the causes and circumstances of her death and will recommend ways to avoid similar occurrences.

Dr. Jean-Philippe Blais, a gastroenterologist, told the inquiry on Monday that the night before Echaquan died, she was agitated and told him she was taking opioids. He said he thought she might have developed a dependency and was exhibiting withdrawal symptoms. He prescribed morphine to ease her pain.

Joyce Echaquan died of pulmonary edema, an excess of fluid in the lungs, according to expert witness Dr. Alain Vadeboncoeur. (Facebook)

Blais told the inquest Echaquan had been hospitalized in Montreal in 2020 with similar stomach problems.

He said he scheduled a colonoscopy to determine the source of her pain and anemia but she died the next day.

A lawyer representing the Atikamekw First Nation asked him whether he thought he had made the wrong diagnosis.

"It's the question I ask myself since these events, coroner's inquiry or not,'' Blais responded, adding that he might have changed his diagnosis had more information been available.

"But I think at the time, I did the maximum I could to treat her,'' he told the inquiry, which is taking place in Trois-Rivières.

Blais said he still doesn't know what killed Echaquan, eight months after her death.

"I still don't understand what happened and it's something that saddens me, that we don't have answers for everyone who knew her,'' he said, adding that the way she was treated in hospital was unacceptable.

"It should never happen in a hospital,'' Blais said.

Coroner Géhane Kamel is presiding over the public hearings, which are scheduled to run until June 2. The inquiry heard from Echaquan's family last week.

With files from Radio-Canada