Loved ones voice more concerns about Sunnybrook veterans

The Canadian Press says reports about complaints of substandard care at Canada's largest facility for war veterans have prompted several more people to come forward with allegations of neglect.
George Burnell, 92, is seen at Sunnybrook's Veterans Centre in Toronto where he lives on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012. Several families, including his wife and son, have concerns about the level of care their relatives are receiving at the centre. (Colin Perkel/Canadian Press) )

Articles about complaints of substandard care at Canada's largest facility for war veterans have prompted several more people to come forward with stories of neglect.

Some involved injuries to the frail elderly, who live out their last days and months at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre.

John Marriott said his family was appalled this spring when they found his ailing 96-year-old father-in-law with a bloody mouth, and discovered his front tooth had been knocked out.

Sunnybrook's explanation, he said, was that the virtually immobile man had somehow wriggled his way out of bed and fallen.

"We've been so traumatized by all of this," Marriott said. "It's like 'One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest' lite."

The new complaints, as was the case previously, come mostly from part of the 500-bed vets centre that houses the most infirm vets rather than the part which resembles a pleasant retirement lodge.

Some, fearing reprisals, agreed to speak only on condition of strict anonymity, making it difficult to verify their accounts. Others were less reticent.

Oma Anirood said she was dismayed to discover her husband, Charles Taylor, 92, was left strapped in a wheelchair in a second-floor "K-Wing" hallway in his own waste for hours on end.

"If you are walking and you have your faculties, it's not a bad wing," she said.

"But if you don't know what you're doing, and you can't make decisions it's horrible. It's better you die. No point living. Who wants to sit in feces and a wet diaper all day?"

At one point, she said, she pointed out that her husband's roommate — a man without immediate family to visit him — had bed sores after days of lying in bed.

"This guy hasn't got out of bed for like five days," she said she told a manager. "They're pushing the food down his throat and leaving him in bed."

Sunnybrook, which calls its care exemplary, did act on that complaint, Anirood said.

Spokesman Craig DuHamel said the facility could not respond to patient complaints through the media but was always open to discussing issues with family.

One worker at the hospital said most nurses are caring and do their best but there are too few staff to look after the extremely frail patients.   

The woman, who asked not to be identified because she is afraid of losing her job, said vets are frequently left in hallways.

"I see them just sitting in one corner for hours. It's really sad," she said. "They're sitting there with their dirty diapers. It's a lack of staff." 

She said it's commonplace for three nurses to be trying to feed 15 or 16 vets, and she contradicted Sunnybrook's claims that patients are never left alone, saying she found one man choking recently with no one around to help him.

Managers say hospital well-regarded by patients, families

The Canadian Press articles outlining the complaints of several relatives about the treatment of their loved ones prompted the minister of veterans affairs to order a full-scale audit of the centre, and sparked adamant denials of any problems from Sunnybrook.

Senior managers blamed the complaints on a handful of malcontents, and pointed to surveys showing sector-leading patient and family satisfaction.

"It's not true," said one woman, who came forward after seeing a Sunnybrook representative dismiss the concerns.

"There is a huge problem when people become sick there, when they need extra care."

The woman, who asked she not be identified, said she was horrified at the poor care her father received.

"I had to fight them. He was crying in pain," she said. "It was horrendous care. I'm just so angry at Sunnybrook."

While Sunnybrook said it laid off 20 full- and part-time registered nurses in April — it says it has about 500 nurses for its 500 residents and patients — operations director Dorothy Ferguson said most were still working, and patient-staff ratios were as good or better than anywhere comparable.

The facility also maintains it voluntarily meets or exceeds Ontario standards, although no one has done a thorough, independent care audit in years.

Some online readers have jumped to the centre's defence, with one, for example, saying the care was excellent and his father was "always treated with utmost respect."

One woman, who has been keeping a journal of incidents, said there is a serious lack of accountability at Sunnybrook, which is unique in that it receives both provincial and federal funding, but reports only to Veterans Affairs Canada.

Fearing retaliation against her 91-year-old father, she, too, asked not to be identified. She said she's seen nurses verbally abusing patients, handling them roughly, or ignoring pleas for help.

"Sunnybrook is supposed to be the best but it's nothing to what everyone thinks it is," she said.

The Ontario Nurses Association, which speaks for registered nurses, refused to discuss the working environment at Sunnybrook.   

Mike Blais, president of Canadian Veterans Advocacy, said if the allegations are valid, it is "completely unacceptable," noting "these old guys can't speak for themselves."

Delayed feedings or patients left without hearing aids — among the complaints — may seem trivial, he said, but go to the heart of the matter.

"All these small things may seem irrelevant among people, but that's the level of compassion," Blais said.

"If we don't have people who are taking (seriously) these very basic common courtesies that are such an important facet of quality-of-life care for these guys, what else is missing?"

Niklaus Schwenker, spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, called the concerns "troubling."

"While we await the results of the audit, we look forward to working with the Ontario Ministry of Health to fully investigate the situation," Schwenker said Sunday.