Whitehorse hospital seeing more intoxicated patients

The 2008 death of a Yukon man in RCMP custody has led the force to send more intoxicated patients to the emergency room of Whitehorse General Hospital.

New RCMP policy increases burden on hospital

Staff at Whitehorse General Hospital's emergency room, which operates at capacity, check over 15 to 20 intoxicated patients a day, Dr. Rao Tadepalli says. ((CBC))

The 2008 death of a Yukon man in RCMP custody has led the force to send more intoxicated patients to the emergency room of Whitehorse General Hospital, says the head of the Yukon Medical Association.

About one in four emergency room patients need acute detoxification from extreme drunkenness, association president Dr. Rao Tadepalli told CBC News, adding that those numbers have recently increased since an inquest into Raymond Silverfox's death took place this month.

"We are under increased demand … we get 15, 20 intoxicated individuals a day to be checked over," Tadepalli said Thursday.

The inquest heard that Silverfox spent 13 hours in the Whitehorse RCMP detachment's drunk tank on Dec. 2, 2008. He was largely unattended while he lay in his own vomit and feces, until an officer noticed he was not moving.

Silverfox died in hospital a short time later of acute pneumonia. A pathologist said the pneumonia likely started as the result of him breathing in his own vomit. The inquest panel concluded that he died of natural causes.

While Tadepalli did not want to comment on the Silverfox inquest, he said there has been an increase in the number of people being brought to the Whitehorse hospital directly from the RCMP drunk tank.

"We have now every patient that they are not comfortable [with] … they want medical approval for them to be taken back to the cells or to the medical detox," he said.

New RCMP policy

The inquest heard that ambulances have been called to the RCMP detachment 135 times so far this year, due in part to a new RCMP policy that requires an ambulance to be called if someone being held in the drunk tank vomits more than twice. That policy came into effect after Silverfox's death.

Raymond Silverfox, 43, died on Dec. 2, 2008, after spending 13 hours in custody at the Whitehorse RCMP drunk tank. ((Family photo))

Tadepalli said the hospital's emergency room is already running at capacity, so more beds are needed to deal with the influx of patients.

"Whether it could be at the emergency room, or a few beds in Thomson Centre, that could be a more ideal situation. We definitely have space restrictions," he said.

Tadepalli's concerns were echoed in the Yukon legislature this week by NDP MLA Todd Hardy, who called for some kind of new facility.

"One of the most important measures that could be done both for patients and for the professionals involved in this care, is a medical detoxification unit," Hardy said in the legislature.

Government officials say they are looking into the issue and studying alternative solutions.

Drunk tank alternatives welcomed

Meanwhile, some of Whitehorse's street people say they would welcome an alternative to the police drunk tank, especially in the wake of Silverfox's death.

"You're not really solving any problems when you put people in there. You just make them mad, and when they come out they're going to tie one on again," said Jerry Jack, who has spent some time in the Whitehorse drunk tank.

"I don't think it's fair. It's not very nice the way they treat people in that place."

One example of an alternative is in Winnipeg, where the Main Street Project runs an emergency detention centre where intoxicated people can seek refuge for the night.

The project, which is partly funded by the Winnipeg Police Service, has paramedics and crisis workers on staff. It also has a detox area and soup kitchen.

"I think the agency as a whole approaches intoxication as an addiction. We approach it as a health problem; we don't approach it in a judgmental way," executive director Brian Bechtel said.

"We're not part of the enforcement. We're really about taking somebody who has been in a public place — and has been unsafe, in somebody's opinion — and they're here and we make sure they get out of here safe and get home."