Toronto·CBC Investigates

Family seeks answers after woman suspected of having COVID-19 restrained and later dies in hospital

The family of a Toronto woman admitted to hospital on suspicion of having COVID-19 is demanding answers after she had an altercation with security they say left her unconscious and in intensive care, before she died days later.

Danielle Stephanie Warriner, 43, fought mental illness. Now, her family is fighting for answers.

For 11 days, as Danielle Stephanie Warriner was lying in a hospital bed, her family had no idea where she was, or that she'd been restrained by guards and would never regain consciousness.  (Submitted by Denise Warriner)

For 11 days, as Danielle Stephanie Warriner lay alone in a hospital bed, her family had no idea where she was, that she'd been restrained by guards and that she would never regain consciousness.

Five days after her family says it was was finally contacted, she was dead.

"I had no opportunity to communicate with her, I had no opportunity to support her," her sister Denise Warriner told CBC News. 

"Whether it was going to help her or not, she didn't have anybody there ... It absolutely tears me apart."

"Stephanie," as she was known to her family, was admitted to hospital on suspicion of having COVID-19 this past May.

Her family is now seeking answers after an altercation with security they say left her unconscious and in intensive care. They're also demanding to know why they received no word on her condition until just days before she died.

After questioning the hospital where she was admitted, CBC News has learned two people employed with University Health Network (UHN) have been let go as a result of a internal review.

Struggles with bipolar disorder

Stephanie was the younger of two sisters and wore her heart on her sleeve, her sister Denise Warriner said.

"She felt everything," Warriner said, recalling how as a child, Stephanie was fascinated with butterflies. One day, when the two girls came upon a dead butterfly in their backyard, Stephanie "just cried and cried and cried."

Stephanie, as her family called her, was the younger of two sisters. She wore her heart on her sleeve, said her sister, Denise Warriner. (Submitted by Denise Warriner)

"It affected her so deeply ... And that's the kind of person that she grew to be as an adult."

As the years went on, Stephanie struggled with bipolar disorder and substance abuse. 

At the best of times, she was "spunky" and "laughed at her own jokes," her sister said. But things took a turn for the worse after a romantic breakup in March, which led to Stephanie living in a shelter.

Then, in late April, she was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

On April 21, Stephanie was admitted to Toronto General Hospital with symptoms of pneumonia. Against the advice of doctors, she left the facility multiple times, only to be brought back by police.

She was released on May 5 after further tests for the virus came back negative. But by May 10, she was back at the hospital, delirious and short of breath.

What happened next — and how Stephanie ended up dead following an incident with guards — is now the subject of a Toronto police investigation, a coroner's investigation and an internal review by UHN, which includes Toronto General and several other hospitals. 

Hospital staff let go, disciplined

For months, Denise Warriner has been trying to find out exactly what transpired after her sister was admitted to the hospital.

As Denise Warriner's fight for answers continues, she said she again finds herself in the role of Stephanie's bodyguard, like when they were kids. (Chris Glover/CBC)

In addition to the two people who were let go from the hospital, two others have faced "internal disciplinary action," UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard said in an emailed statement Tuesday. Whether these four employees were security staff or medical professionals, Howard would not specify. Nor would she say what kind of discipline they received.

The organization did not address specific questions about whether any protocol was broken, how many guards were allegedly involved or why Stephanie's family wasn't contacted for 11 days, saying UHN cannot discuss individual details outside a patient's "circle of care."

UHN also did not respond when asked about its policies around notifying emergency contacts. 

"We are extremely sorry that this happened at UHN and are working with the family, the Coroner and the Toronto Police Service to ensure that this incident is fully understood and the appropriate actions are taken now and in the future," the statement said.

It's the first major development Stephanie's family has seen since her death — one her sister says they only learned about from speaking with CBC News.

"This is complete news to me ... I don't think that shows a commitment to transparency," Denise Warriner said.

Handcuffed, later went into cardiac arrest

According to what her family has been able to piece together from medical records, Stephanie made her way to Toronto General Hospital on May 10, with confusion and shortness of breath. In addition to her mental health issues, she suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung condition with symptoms that can resemble those of COVID-19.

This time, a doctor told her, she would need to stay put. Not surprisingly to her sister, she tried to leave the next day.

Security was called to track her down, and told that she might have COVID-19. By the time they found her, Stephanie had made it down to the hospital's main floor.

How much of a physical threat must she have been 5'4", 120 lbs. and unable to breathe?- Denise Warriner

According to records seen by CBC News, security located her outside a service elevator, where she became "combative." She was handcuffed and shortly after, went into cardiac arrest.

She was revived and taken to intensive care, where she began having seizures. On May 20, she was transferred to Toronto Western Hospital. At the time, her family was still unaware of what had happened to her.

'How much of a physical threat must she have been?'

Meanwhile, Denise Warriner had been trying to track her sister down. She had made calls to police and various hospitals, and was getting ready to file a missing person's report.

"[They] knew who I was, [they] knew where I was and I was grasping at straws trying to contact her," Warriner said, noting she was listed as her sister's emergency contact and had been phoned during previous hospital stays. 

It wasn't until May 22 — 11 days after the incident with guards — that Warriner finally got a phone call. It was Toronto Western Hospital, which said her sister was in intensive care with a brain injury.

By May 27, Stephanie was dead, leaving her family reeling and with many questions.

The University Health Network, which includes Toronto General Hospital pictured here, has apologized to employees for the error and upset it's caused. (David Donnelly/CBC)

"How much of a physical threat must she have been [at] 5'4", 120 lbs. and unable to breathe? Where is the reasonable threat assessment here?" Denise Warriner asked.

She also asked why the hospital didn't issue a "code white," which would have sent in staff trained in de-escalation —something the hospital would not comment on when asked by CBC News.

"There's just so many gaps, so much information missing ... It smells like rotten apples," Warriner said.

Denied access to video footage

CBC News has confirmed video footage of the incident exists — but so far, the family has not been allowed to see it.

Toronto Police have so far turned down Denise Warriner's requests to view the footage, she said, telling her instead to file an access to information request. That request was denied.

For months, Denise Warriner, right, has been trying to find out exactly what transpired after her sister Stephanie, left, was admitted to hospital. (Submitted by Denise Warriner)

Meanwhile, she has sent a letter to Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders and the detective in charge of the case, pleading for the video to be shared with the family.

In a statement, Toronto police said they have received a letter from the family's lawyer and are conducting a "sudden death investigation and are thoroughly reviewing all of the circumstances around it."

"The investigators remain in contact with the family and will continue to update them as appropriate while maintaining the integrity of the investigation," the statement said.

Meanwhile, as Warriner's fight for answers continues, she finds herself again in the role of Stephanie's bodyguard, as she was when they were kids — only this time, her sister is no longer around. 

"It just hurts my heart, it really hurts my heart," Warriner said. "She had walked into a hospital to access help ... and she leaves on her deathbed."

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