Quebec coroner calls for inquiry into death of woman who took her life after battle with Lyme disease
Amélie Champagne's father says the province's health-care system failed her
Quebec's chief coroner has ordered a public inquiry into the death of a 22-year-old woman who took her own life after unsuccessfully seeking treatment for a lengthy battle with Lyme disease in Quebec.
Amélie Champagne's death gained national attention after her father Alain Champagne — the CEO and president of the Jean Coutu Group, a chain of Quebec pharmacies — made the announcement in a LinkedIn post last week.
Champagne said his daughter had gone through "years of medical wandering in Quebec" while suffering from symptoms of the tick-borne disease without a diagnosis. She was finally diagnosed with Lyme disease in the U.S. in June.
Despite recent treatments, Champagne said the disease had "essentially hijacked her" by that point, causing severe physical and mental symptoms.
Amélie took her life on Sept. 11 — immediately after being discharged from Sherbrooke's Hôtel-Dieu hospital, where she had been hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
In recent interviews, Champagne has accused Quebec's health-care system of failing his daughter, saying she did not obtain appropriate psychiatric care.
The office of Chief Coroner Pascale Descary said Tuesday that an inquest will aim to shed light on the circumstances and factors that contributed to the young woman's death.
"The hearings will allow any person of interest to express their views on the circumstances of this death in order to analyze all contributing factors, with a view to proposing solutions for better protection of human life," a statement from the office reads.
Details of the inquest and dates for public hearings are not yet known.
Sent home without treatment
In an interview Tuesday morning with radio host Paul Arcand on 98.5 FM, Champagne explained that his daughter suffered from significant sleep disorders, auditory hallucinations, and said her personality had changed in the weeks leading up to her death.
Champagne denied Radio-Canada's request for an interview.
After a suicide attempt at the family's cottage in the Eastern Townships, Champagne said his daughter was hospitalized at the Hôtel-Dieu.
While there, she was put under observation for three days and two nights on a stretcher in the hallway. But staff reportedly told the family that she could not be treated in Sherbrooke because she did not live in the region. They said she had to be transferred to Notre-Dame Hospital in Montreal.
"We had a somewhat surreal discussion with the people there," Champagne told Arcand on Tuesday. "We were told at first that the transfer ... would obviously take several days. There's no capacity, there's no room. And in that context, unfortunately, Amélie also expressed the desire to leave the emergency room," he said.
Champagne said hospital staff told him his daughter's situation had stabilized and she did not represent a danger to herself.
The family reportedly came to pick her up and take her home. She took her life shortly thereafter.
Determining flaws in the system
In a news release, the health authority in the Eastern Townships, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS, offered its deepest condolences to the Champagne family and said it will fully co-operate in the coroner's public inquiry.
Quebec's Ministry of Health and Social Services (MSSS) has confirmed that this investigation will take place in order to understand the flaws in the system.
On Tuesday, Coalition Avenir Québec Leader and incumbent premier François Legault told reporters he found the situation "heartbreaking and sad."
"Mental health, for a long time, has been the neglected sector of the health sector," he said. "We need more psychologists, but we need to train them. It's clear that we need more staff."
Speaking on Radio-Canada's 24/60 Tuesday evening, Quebec's outgoing junior health and social services minister, Lionel Carmant, said that this situation was unacceptable.
"That's why we've called for a coroner's inquiry, to see what practices caused this, where the system failed, and what needs changing. And we will change it," he said.
Carmant acknowledged that, depending on how patients are triaged in the emergency room, the time it takes to evaluate psychiatric cases can be very long — not to mention the length of the stays themselves.
He touted his outgoing party's action plan, which would involve setting up a specialized psychiatric emergency window, including a specialized nurse and a community worker, among others, "to assess the situation and ensure continuity in the community."
"We don't want to see this kind of situation again," Carmant said.
An easily treatable disease most of the time
Dr. Amir Khadir, an infectious disease specialist at Pierre-Le Gardeur Hospital who treats patients with Lyme disease, says doctors in regions significantly affected by Lyme usually recognize it and treat it adequately.
"Most people will be cured with antibiotics. But we think that, despite [the drugs], there are about 12 to 13 per cent of people who will have prolonged [aftereffects]," he said.
Sometimes, he said, these problems become so severe that it's impossible to go about your daily life. Moreover, some caregivers may not recognize this, may deny it or may have a condescending approach, which can exacerbate this feeling in some patients, he adds.
Carl Dubois, spokesperson for the Quebec Lyme Disease Association, says he sees this distress in many patients.
"When they tell you that it's in your head, because all the results come back negative, I can tell you that even the relationship with your loved ones takes a hit," he says.
However, he stresses that the government is working to improve the care of people with the disease.
"We have to give them hope and tell them that there are still good things happening."
If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:
- Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text between 4 p.m. and midnight ET).
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), live chat counselling on the website.
- Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.
- This guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health outlines how to talk about suicide with someone you're worried about.
With files from Radio-Canada