Nova Scotia

Hospital accused of turning away veteran who killed family says it never denied anyone care

A doctor at a Nova Scotia hospital that has been accused of turning away a military veteran who killed his family and himself says it has never refused help to anyone.

Lionel Desmond's family says St. Martha's hospital sent him away, but doctor says that never happened

Family members claim Lionel Desmond sought help from Saint Martha's hospital in Antigonish, N.S., but was turned away. (CBC)

A doctor at a Nova Scotia hospital that has been accused of turning away a military veteran who killed his family and himself says it has never refused help to anyone.

In a short email addressed to various media, Dr. Minoli Amit said St. Martha's Regional Hospital in Antigonish cannot comment specifically on the case of Lionel Desmond. The bodies of the veteran, his wife, young daughter and mother were found Jan. 3 in an Upper Big Tracadie home.

In the next sentence, however, Amit appeared to directly take aim at the family's accusations that the hospital turned a desperate Desmond away shortly before what police have confirmed was a triple murder-suicide.

"We would like however to confirm that no person was ever refused services or turned away from care at St. Martha's Regional Hospital — as is being widely reported in the media," said Amit in the email, sent Saturday to CBC with the subject line, "Inaccurate and wrong information on your news programs."

"Our ER at St. Martha's has never been closed and we routinely work through bed shortages and other challenges to provide the best care for anyone seeking our services.

"We would greatly appreciate the support of the media at this very difficult time for this family and community."

Amit identified herself in the email as a pediatrician and medical staff lead at St. Martha's hospital, and confirmed in a subsequent email that she was authorized to speak for the hospital. 

Family says vet was turned away

Multiple members of Desmond's family have said the 33-year-old retired corporal was sent away after seeking mental health help at St. Martha's before the deaths of Desmond's wife, Shanna, 31, his daughter, Aaliyah, 10, and his mother, Brenda, 52.

One family member said he was turned away because there were no beds, another said it was because the hospital didn't have his file. 

Family members say Desmond was a loving husband and father, but came back a changed man from Afghanistan. (Facebook/The Canadian Press)

They said Desmond suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder related to a tour in Afghanistan. He was released from the military in 2015 and spent time at a Montreal clinic, but family said he struggled to find the help he needed once back home in Nova Scotia, both from the health system and Veterans Affairs.

Shanna Desmond's sister, Shonda Borden, said her brother-in-law could be volatile, but never violent. 

However, the situation had become so bad before the killings that he had decided to stay at his grandparents' house because he was "getting so out of control." 

"He had all the family support you could imagine," Borden told CBC Radio's The Current last week. "If you don't have the government to back you up, not even the health system to back you up, you're going to remain the same."

Services available for those in need

Dr. Theresa Vienneau, head of the department of psychiatry with the Nova Scotia Health Authority's northern zone, told CBC News that people in crisis have options, including calling a 24-hour mental health support line that's available across the province 

Vienneau could only speak in general terms about the availability of services in the Antigonish area, and not specifically about the Desmond case.

In September, Desmond posted a Facebook video of himself doing the 22 pushup challenge, an initiative to raise awareness about PTSD. (Facebook)

"Regardless of the number of beds in any part of the province, if a psychiatrist deems ... the person's condition requires inpatient treatment, then the person is admitted to hospital for treatment," Vienneau, a psychiatrist in New Glasgow, said in a recent interview.

If a bed isn't available locally, Vienneau said attempts are made to admit and transfer patients to the facility with the nearest available bed.

"I think it's really important to emphasize that people who require inpatient treatment are not turned away because of anything to do with resources," she said. 

"It's so important for people to understand that that decision around determining the need for admission to hospital is a clinical decision. It's made by a psychiatrist and ... that's the most important decision we face when someone presents to an emergency department."

The health authority's clinical director of mental health and addictions said Tuesday there are options if a psychiatrist isn't readily available and the person seeking help isn't willing or cannot wait to be transferred to another facility. 

"If someone ... left [the hospital] and there was sufficient concern that they were unsafe, either to themselves or others, there are other mechanisms in law that would allow that person to be picked up [by police] and taken somewhere for an assessment," Dr. Scott Theriault told CBC News at Six. 

Theriault conceded the mental health system isn't without its challenges.

"It's certainly true that resources ... for mental health generally are not adequate. I don't think that's any great secret," he said. 

"We're trying to sort of leverage and use our resources as efficiently as possible."

Hospital's actions to be reviewed

Nova Scotia Health Minister Leo Glavine said last week the government would look into what happened at St. Martha's.

Dr. Maureen Allen, an emergency room doctor at St. Martha's, told CBC News last week that she welcomed the review. 

Allen was not involved in Desmond's case and could not discuss specifics of the facility's role in his care, but she said emergency rooms like the one she works in "are inundated" with people struggling with mental health and addictions issues, particularly on weekends and during the evening hours.

Amit, in her email, also said the hospital "will be reviewing all aspects of our involvement from many perspectives." 

With files from the CBC's Sherri Borden Colley, News at Six and The Current