Montreal

Herron coroner's inquiry hears 911 call made by health agency CEO

In a 911 call, the CEO of the West Island health agency, Lynne McVey, can be heard telling dispatcher she's "worried about a situation at a private CHSLD where there have been several deaths."

West Island CIUSSS CEO Lynne McVey called police about worrisome deaths at Herron

Lynne McVey, head of the west island health agency, speaks to reporters after her testimony at the coroners inquiry into the deaths of 47 seniors during the first wave of the pandemic at the Herron long term care home on Montreal's west island. (CBC News)

A 911 call made by a top health-care official during the height of the debacle at the Herron long-term care residence in Montreal's West Island came under heavy scrutiny during a coroner's inquiry on Tuesday.

It was the final day of testimony dedicated to Herron, where 47 residents died in the spring of 2020. 

The hearings are part of a broader inquiry into deaths in seniors' facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic's first wave.

During the 911 call, Lynne McVey, head of the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, asked police to investigate several worrisome deaths at the residence.

McVey was the final witness called to testify regarding Herron, and she was testifying for the second time. For much of her testimony she was grilled about the circumstances leading up to the call.

It begins with McVey identifying herself and explaining who she is.

"I'm calling because I'm worried about a situation in a private CHSLD where there have been several deaths," McVey tells the 911 operator during the call, which was made around 1:00 AM on April 11, 2020, two weeks after the CIUSSS had assumed control of the residence.

McVey asks police to investigate, saying that information had come to the CIUSSS's attention that day that prompted her to call.

The operator takes her contact information and says police will be in touch. Montreal police did investigate but ultimately prosecutors determined there were no grounds for criminal charges.

LISTEN | West Island health official's 911 call about seniors' deaths:

Hear the call to 911 made by health board director Lynne McVey

1 year ago
Duration 0:59
In this 911 call the CEO of the West Island health agency Lynne McVey can be heard voicing concern over several deaths discovered at the Herron long-term care home and seeking a police investigation.

CEO grilled about why she called 911

McVey testified it was only that day that the CIUSSS realized that there was a discrepancy in the number of deaths reported at Herron.

She said up until April 10, 2020, the CIUSSS believed 13 residents had died. She said after reviewing the files, CIUSSS officials told her that, in fact, 31 residents had died.

Coroner Géhane Kamel grilled McVey about why agency staff, who had already been on the ground managing Herron for two weeks, didn't sound the alarm earlier about the number of deaths.

Coroner Géhane Kamel grilled McVey about why she chose to call 911. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

"How could it be that there were people from the CIUSSS in Herron as of March 29 and none of them realized how many people were dying?" Kamel asked.

Kamel said if she were the CEO of the CIUSSS she would have been shocked.

"I agree with you," McVey responded. "I'm far from perfect."

She noted that the primary concern of CIUSSS employees working at Herron at the time was caring for patients and saving lives, and that tabulating deaths fell by the wayside.

"If we had the choice between saving lives and registering deaths, I don't think you can fault nurses on the ground for going to a bedside rather than registering deaths,'' McVey said.

Kamel continued to press McVey on why she felt the need to call 911.

"Calling the police isn't a crime, and it's a certainly a situation we'd never gone through in our careers,'' McVey said. "We found 139 patients with zero staff, it was unthinkable.''

She said that when the CIUSSS first visited Herron on March 29, 2020 and found residents malnourished and dehydrated, with just a handful of staff caring for them, it was an alarming situation.

"If it was so alarming, then why didn't you call police March 29?" Kamel asked.

McVey conceded that she probably should have called police that day.

Kamel suggested McVey called the police on April 10 because the Montreal Gazette had published a story that day about the conditions at Herron.

At the end of her testimony McVey offered condolences to the families of those who died.

"We went there to help and we really wanted to save everybody," McVey said.

Coroner condemns finger-pointing

Earlier in the day, Kamel also questioned Najia Hachimi-Idrissi, McVey's deputy CEO, about the under-reported deaths.

"We weren't in the field. We did not have complete control of the situation, we were in collaboration," Hachimi-Idrissi replied.

Kamel wasn't satisfied.

"What is shocking to us is that people were dying day after day, and no one thought of recording these deaths until April 10. If I were a family member, I would be outraged," Kamel said.

Kamel then said she was tired of hearing the health agency and the Herron's owners blame each other for the crisis.

"You were both responsible for these seniors. I want to hear someone say, 'Yes, we dropped the ball,'" Kamel said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Rukavina

Journalist

Steve Rukavina has been with CBC News in Montreal since 2002. In 2019, he won a RTDNA award for continuing coverage of sexual misconduct allegations at Concordia University. He's also a co-creator of the podcast, Montreapolis. Before working in Montreal he worked as a reporter for CBC in Regina and Saskatoon. You can reach him at stephen.j.rukavina@cbc.ca.

with files from The Canadian Press

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