Saskatchewan

SHA publicly apologizes for 'improperly denying' Samwel Uko care before death

Samuel Uko was denied care twice before he was found dead in Regina's Wascana Lake in May. His family says he committed suicide. On Thursday, the SHA publicly apologized for its actions before his death.

SHA outlined failures, plans to improve service at Thursday news conference

Friends and teammates are remembering Samwel Uko, 20, for his big smile, kind heart and love of football. (Remembering Samwel Uko/Facebook)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) offered a formal apology Thursday for its actions in the hours before Samwel Uko was found dead in May.

The 20-year-old from Abbotsford, B.C., who was in Regina visiting an aunt, died on May 21 after drowning in Wascana Lake. Prior to his death, Uko sought help at the Regina General Hospital twice while in the throes of a mental health crisis.

"Samwel was a vibrant young man who sought help from us and we failed to provide him the timely assistance he needed," SHA CEO Scott Livingstone said in a prepared statement on Thursday.

"There are no words that can bring Samwel back, but I do want the public to know that we recognize how deeply we failed him."

Uko's family said he died by suicide. The Saskatchewan Coroners Service confirmed his body was found in the lake, but didn't confirm the cause of death and said an investigation is underway.

In a letter obtained by CBC News, Livingstone offered a formal apology to Uko's family prior to the news conference on Thursday. 

Uko's uncle Justin Nyee said the family accepted the health authority's apology, but was still reeling from Uko's death.

"We have mixed feelings still going on, because what happened to Samwel, it shouldn't have happened to anyone," Nyee said. 

Nyee said the SHA's letter promised to make things better. He said a critical incident review completed by the health authority had produced recommendations to prevent a similar situation.

The family also had recommendations for the health authority, Byee said. Cultural sensitivity and diversity, particularly in emergency rooms, was something Nyee said he hoped was addressed.

"If there was someone who looked like Samwel [at the emergency room] who came and talked to him, things might have been different," Nyee said.

Uko started his post-secondary football career playing for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in 2018-19, before heading back home to British Columbia to play for the Langley Rams. (Remembering Samwel Uko/Facebook)

He said the family wasn't satisfied with the SHA's review or apology, but that he understands the organization is trying to make change for the better and the family would work with the SHA to do so.

Uko, who was originally from what is now South Sudan, came to Canada with his family as a refugee in 2005.

He started playing football soon after his arrival in his new home in B.C., and the sport became his passion.

SHA outlines failures

Livingstone said there were limitations to what he could disclose, but that the health authority improperly denied Uko care at the Regina General Hospital on May 21. 

He there wasn't one specific area where the SHA failed Uko. Instead, he said, multiple factors converged and ultimately resulted in the denial of care.

"Confusion over Samwel's identity was exacerbated by our own registration processes that were not responsive to the situation," he said. 

 "We spent too much time trying to obtain his identity and not enough time focusing on his care needs."

Livingstone said there was also a breakdown in information sharing and "hand-off" processes with other agencies.

COVID-19 screening processes also contributed to the situation, Livingstone said. 

A memorial for Samwel Uko in Abbotsford, B.C. (Baneet Braich/for CBC)

He said the critical incident review showed no evidence Uko's race played a factor in the lack of care the Black man received.

"That being said, with respect to the situation across this country… with respect to racial minorities and those underserved, with a 40,000 staff member organization, we do have pockets, but it is the organization's goal to build a more culturally responsive health-care system," Livingstone said.

SHA will improve service: CEO

Last month, the health authority said Uko's case was a "critical incident," defined as "a serious adverse health event including, but not limited to, the actual or potential loss of life … related to a health service provided by, or a program operated by, a health-care organization."

On Thursday, the SHA announced a six-area quality improvement plan to improve services and prevent a similar situation from happening.

The SHA said it plans to improve registration and triage processes, adapt COVID-19 screening and visitation protocols, improve information sharing with partner organizations, address gaps in removing people from health authority facilities, improve co-ordination of mental health supports within the emergency department, and stre​ngthen a culture of safety that empowers staff to 'Stop the Line.'

Uko's family had also called for mental health services specifically tailored to the needs of Black communities in Saskatchewan. Experts had previously asked the province to consider collecting data on mental health in Black communities in order to improve services. 

At the time, Livingstone said no plans exist to pursue those avenues. 

He said the province is instead looking to improve its mental health services through a culturally responsive approach.

"We are looking at mental health data collection and how it can help inform the services we provide," Livingstone said. 

"The goal for the organization is to provide services to each and every individual and make them culturally responsive to those individuals that we serve and create an organization that has diversity within the organization as well." 

Uko's family agreed to assist the SHA in its review of the incident.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe previously said the coroner's service will conduct a public inquest into Uko's death.

Samwel Uko was found dead in Wascana Lake on Thursday. His family says he died after seeking help. Uko posted this video to Snapchat. 0:19

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | crisisservicescanada.ca (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

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

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre.

Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.

With files from Omayra Issa

now