New Brunswick

Advocate appalled by Saint John hospital's 'callous' response to grieving mom

A longtime mental health advocate says he is appalled by the "callous manner" in which a Charlotte County woman has been treated by the health-care system while trying to find details about her daughter's death in the psychiatric ward of the Saint John Regional Hospital. 

Patty Borthwick is still looking for answers seven months after her daughter's suicide

Hillary Hooper died by suicide at the Saint John Regional Hospital in December after numerous attempts to get help for depression. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A longtime mental health advocate is calling on the provincial government to investigate the suicide of a patient in the psychiatric unit of Saint John Regional Hospital last December.

Bill Wilkerson, the co-founder of Mental Health International, said hospital officials shouldn't be allowed to conduct their own investigation after the "callous manner" in which they dealt with the patient's mother in recent months.

He said the hospital's response to her inquiries was "unconscionably ignorant" of the "basic compassion ground rules that should exist when a hospital deals with anybody, but particularly in a case like this."

Patty Borthwick's 27-year-old daughter, Hillary Hooper, was a patient in the psychiatric unit at the Regional when she took her own life on Dec. 2. 

Hooper had made several suicide attempts in the months leading up to her death, and she was admitted to the hospital after a particularly close call on Nov. 13. 

With her daughter's history, Borthwick wondered how Hooper was able to die in a secure psychiatric unit. In February, when she was strong enough, Borthwick started asking questions — and getting the runaround from hospital officials. 

Patty Borthwick with daughter Hillary on the family's pontoon boat. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Seven months after her daughter's death, she has even more questions than she initially did. She was eventually granted a meeting on May 21 with several high-ranking hospital officials and was promised copies of all the reports and documents she had been asking for. 

But in subsequent letters, hospital officials reneged on those promises. The only report Borthwick was ever given was a copy of the coroner's report.

Borthwick said she's not giving up and not going away. 

"I have the same questions now that I've been asking from day one," she said. 

One of her questions is: On this unit for the care of psychiatric patients, was nobody watching?

Wilkerson, a professor of health, aging and society at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., called the case "a troubling wake-up call, and I encourage general hospitals in Canada to do special suicide-sensitive, life-protective audits of psychiatric services, systems, training and care."

Bill Wilkerson, the co-founder of Mental Health International, sent a letter to Premier Blaine Higgs on Friday, asking for a provincial investigation into the suicide of Hillary Hooper in the psychiatric unit of the Saint John Regional Hospital last December. (Submitted by Bill Wilkerson)

He said he was particularly appalled when hospital officials "used the privacy con game that hospitals use frequently to not communicate information." 

Wilkerson said it's "superbly ironic" that Borthwick was considered "sufficiently personal and sufficiently representative" to make the call to remove her daughter from life support but "too distant" to give her details about her daughter's death. 

"This absurdity triggered my serious concern about the competence and integrity of this hospital relative to psychiatric care," he said.

In a letter dated June 22, Wilkerson said, "they give this grieving mother a powerfully arrogant and detailed explanation of the legal reasons" that prevent them from answering Borthwick's questions about her daughter's death. 

"This legalistic, bureaucratic, fearful (liability concerns, no doubt) and cruel letter merely sustains the tone and demeanour of how the hospital and Horizon have treated this woman and her grieving family," said Wilkerson. 

He said his concern has only deepened since getting involved in the case, and he has little confidence in the ability of Horizon Health, which operates the Regional, to investigate what happened to Hooper.  

Wilkerson said "neither the hospital management nor Horizon should be left to their own devices in carrying out the investigations."

Hillary Hooper, seen here with her beloved dog, Blue. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

In a letter he sent to Premier Blaine Higgs on Friday, Wilkerson calls on the premier "to consider putting Saint John Regional Hospital under provincial supervision to ensure these investigations are carried out by independent experts in psychiatric service and protective suicide risk management."

The Premier's Office was asked for a comment on Friday, but none was provided by publication time. 

Horizon Health was also asked for comment on Friday afternoon. 

Shannon MacLeod, Horizon's senior communications adviser, responded by email: "Horizon will not provide any further comment on this."

Borthwick vowed to continue to fight for answers.

"I'm not going to be quiet and say, 'OK, I give up. They win.' No, if I've got to go to the courts, I'll go to the courts," said Borthwick. 

If you are in crisis or know someone who is, here is where to get help:

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005  /

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868,  Live Chat counselling at

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566


Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at