New Brunswick

Mom still waiting for answers about daughter's death by suicide in hospital psychiatric unit

The mother of a woman who died by suicide in a psychiatric wing of the Saint John Regional Hospital has been waiting months for answers about her daughter's death. But after a meeting with hospital officials two weeks ago, she's left with more questions than before.

Meeting with hospital officials left her with more questions than before

Hillary Hooper, seen here with her beloved dog, Blue, 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.


When Patty Borthwick walked into a meeting with health officials earlier this month, she thought she was finally going to find out how her daughter was able to die by suicide in a secure hospital psychiatric wing. 

Instead, she's more frustrated than ever. 

"I have more questions now than I ever did," said the Lake Utopia woman. 

Borthwick's 27-year-old daughter, Hillary Hooper, had a history of depression and had already made two pretty dramatic attempts at suicide that resulted in brief stays in the psychiatric ward of the Saint John Regional Hospital last year. 

The St. George woman tried again on Nov. 13, walking into the emergency room with a note that said to let her die and donate her organs. 

She was stabilized and then moved to the psychiatric unit for the third time in as many months, said her mother. 

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

Nineteen days later, she took her own life in the bathroom of her room. 

Borthwick, who measures the time since Dec. 2 by "Wednesday's without Hillary," says it's been 23 Wednesdays. 

She wants to know how it could have happened. How could a person with a history of attempting suicide manage to succeed while in a psychiatric unit? 

It took 11 Wednesday's and the death of another young person before she was strong enough to search for answers. 

The day after 16-year-old Lexi Daken died by suicide, her mother posted to Facebook, describing how her daughter had waited eight hours at the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital for mental health help before leaving without receiving any. She died a week later and her death has been the catalyst for major reforms announced by the Department of Health earlier this month. 

Borthwick has been fighting for answers ever since reading that Facebook post by Lexi's mom. That very day, she wrote a letter to Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

"From day one, this was all about getting some answers and making sure it doesn't happen to anyone again," said Borthwick. 

Patty Borthwick said she placed this picture of her daughter on the table during her meeting with hospital officials "so that they'd know who we were talking about." (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

She thought those answers would come on May 7 in a meeting with Horizon Health's patient advocate, the clinical department head of psychiatry for the Saint John area, and the manager of addictions and mental health for the Saint John area. 

Borthwick said some of the details they provided during the meeting conflicted with what a nurse told them the night Hooper was found unresponsive. 

While they weren't able to answer many of her questions during that meeting, Borthwick left feeling "semi–optimistic" because they promised to get her answers right away. They also promised to give her a copy of the post-mortem and the internal review of Hooper's death. 

Three days after the meeting, the patient advocate called to follow up. 

One of the things Borthwick had questioned was why officials keep denying that Hooper's bed was moved to block the door. Borthwick said the woman who identified herself as the "charge nurse" was very clear when Borthwick arrived at about 1 a.m. on Dec. 3 — Hooper had moved her bed to block the door. 

After initially maintaining there was nothing about the bed in the hospital records, Borthwick said the advocate eventually found mention of it in a two-page email from the head of psychiatry. 

Borthwick said she was told that Hooper's necklace had been cut off. But when she showed them the intact necklace that she's worn ever since, she says they amended their answer to say it was gently removed.

She said she now questions the veracity of the information they're giving her and believes they're more concerned about appearances than answers. 

After years of depression, Hillary Hooper died by suicide in December in the Saint John Hospital's psychiatric unit. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Borthwick was so worried about the discrepancies that she went to the Saint John Police Force on Monday to find out what the police report says. 

By Thursday, the investigating officer got back to her and confirmed many of the details that the head nurse told Borthwick on Dec. 3. 

An emailed request to the spokesperson for the Saint John Police Force on Thursday still hasn't been acknowledged — not even after a follow-up email was sent on Friday.

A Horizon Health spokesperson did acknowledge receipt of a similar email on Thursday and said a response was likely on Friday. But after a follow-up request was sent Friday afternoon, a spokesperson said a response would not be available. 

As for the reports they've promised, Borthwick said she still hasn't seen her daughter's post-mortem, hospital charts, or the internal review into her death — something she says officials promised her within 48 hours of that May 7 meeting. 

She said she doesn't even have enough information to get the bank to close her daughter's bank accounts — 23 Wednesdays later. 

She said she was very clear when she spoke to the patient advocate — she will not give up. 

"I said that is not a threat, that is a promise, because I am never going away 'til I die to get my answers. You will not get rid of me until I have my answers."

Hillary's history of depression

Borthwick said her daughter's mental health trouble first surfaced as an eating disorder when she was a teenager. 

She said her daughter continued to experience overwhelming sadness that would sometimes keep her in bed for days. 

Hooper tried to get professional help, but nothing seemed to work. She saw psychiatrists, she tried medication, but she couldn't shake the depression.

Borthwick said her daughter seemed to be doing well in 4D North at the Regional after she was admitted last November. She spoke to her daughter on the phone until 9:03 p.m. on Dec. 2 and texted her after that. Things seemed positive — right up to the last text she sent at 10:34. 

From the reports that she received from the nurses, Borthwick believes Hooper must have put her phone down and set to work on ending her life. She was discovered during a routine check at 11 p.m.  

Borthwick was called just before midnight. 

After a few days on life support, Borthwick said it became clear that her daughter would not recover. The decision was made to disconnect the machines. She died 10 minutes later. 

How?

The question Borthwick keeps asking is 'How?'  How was she able to die in a psychiatric wing? A place she was sent to for her own safety after yet another attempt.

In her May 7 meeting with Horizon Health officials, Borthwick was told two recommendations were going to be sent to the health minister as a result of the internal review of Hooper's death. 

One is to create a safe place in the hospital — either in the emergency department or in 4D North — for those in a mental health crisis. 

The second is to remove the upper part of the door frames, presumably in an attempt to prevent hanging, said Borthwick. Where they can't be removed, they will be equipped with sensors that trigger an alarm when force is applied, she was told.


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

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005  / http://www.chimohelpline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868,  Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

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