NORTH SYDNEY, N.S. — The family of a Cape Breton woman who died after suffering burns to 35 per cent of her body while under the care of the Northside Community Guest Home is looking for answers.
They say the circumstances surrounding the death of North Sydney resident Edna Whitty, 78, are gruesome. They also say this isn’t the only time they were concerned with her care at the facility.
At about 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 1 — nine months to the day from when she first moved into the facility — Whitty set her hair on fire, then her nightgown. She was in the smoking room with two other residents, unsupervised. As per facility protocol, Whitty had to ask a nurse for the lighter and one of her cigarettes.
“What makes this so hard is the way she died,” said Cecelia Farr, 69, one of Whitty’s sisters.
“To think of what she went through before help arrived, that’s what’s tearing us apart.”
Cape Breton Regional Police spokeswoman Desiree Vassallo confirmed police investigated the circumstances surrounding the fire and determined there was no foul play. Investigators met with the family on Nov. 27 and told them their findings.
Farr said it’s her understanding that after Whitty’s nightgown was on fire, she left the smoking room and walked 10-15 feet down a hall before kitchen staff heard her cries. A staff member ran over and tried to try pat the fire out. Another staff member then came with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.
The family said that police told them there was no video of the incident but did confirm there are surveillance cameras in the area.
The family also said police told them that when paramedics asked Whitty why she set herself on fire, she told them she had asked a guest home staff member to let her go to the hospital a couple of days before the incident and they refused her request.
“I know my sister. She didn’t mean to kill herself. She just wanted attention. She wanted to go to the hospital,” said Farr, who still calls Whitty’s number, hoping to hear her voice before they disconnect the line.
Farr was at Whitty’s bedside at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital and then at the QEII hospital in Halifax where she was airlifted. At the QEII, the plastic surgeon told Farr he would “literally have to ‘scrape her to the bone in some places’ to do the skin grafts Whitty needed. He gave her less than a 15 per cent chance of surviving the first surgery. But Whitty needed multiple surgeries and her chances of surviving the others would be less than the first.
“He said if she was 19, perhaps even in her 50s, she might have had a chance … He said he didn’t think she’d be able to stand the pain,” said Farr.
“And if she survived she wouldn’t be the same again. And he said you also have to consider all the infections that would set in.”
- Age: 78
- Birthday: Oct. 25, 1940
- Born: Ingonish Beach
- Resided: North Sydney
- Children: two boys, two girls
- Grandchildren: 11
- Liked to do: Bingo, cards
- Favourite TV shows: Price is Right, any game show
- Will be remembered for: Saying “I love you” when saying goodbye
Lisa Wylde, one of Whitty’s 11 grandchildren, said the surgeon was also concerned there wasn’t enough skin to do “one skin graft let alone multiple.”
The family made the difficult decision to take Whitty off life support at 11:40 a.m. on Nov. 3. By 11:50 a.m. she was dead.
“We had to … who wants to put their loved one through multiple surgeries that she may not make it through? She suffered enough pain as it is. I mean, we wouldn’t even cremate her for that reason,” said Farr, pain in her voice as she spoke through her tears.
“Like the doctor said, it was only the machines keeping her alive,” said Wylde.
The Northside Community Guest Home board of directors said they aren’t commenting and attempts to reach administrators at the facility were unsuccessful.
The Department of Health and Wellness confirmed a complaint was filed under the Protection of Persons in Care Act. Farr and Wylde said no one in the family filed this complaint.
While they can’t speak about specifics of the case, department spokesperson Tracy Barron told the Post via email: “We can confirm that facilities are required to report critical incidents to the department, and the facility reported this incident.”
Over the nine months Whitty was in care at the facility, Farr and Wylde said there were other situations that caused them concern.
Farr said her sister was moved into the Northside Community Guest Home on Feb. 1 and, six or seven weeks later, was sent by the home to the Northside General Hospital. Farr arrived and found her sister “out of it,” in a highly sedated, confused state.
When she asked the attending doctor what was wrong, Farr said the doctor replied, “All I can say is she’s on a truckload of medication.”
After Whitty returned to the guest home, Farr said her medications were drastically reduced and she noticed a decline in her sister’s mental health. Whitty was biting her nails down to her fingers, then the skin off the top, leaving them raw. There were also days Whitty would tell Farr she couldn’t talk because her “nerves were too bad.”
This makes Farr and Wylde worry that best-practice protocol wasn’t used when reducing Whitty’s medications, some of which she had been on for decades for anxiety and depression.
Another time, Farr noticed both her sister’s legs were red from the knee down to the ankle. When she questioned the nurse about it, Farr said the nurse said she didn’t know anything about it and suggested Whitty didn’t need immediate medical attention.
Farr decided to take Whitty to the hospital, where they found both her legs were infected.
The Department of Health and Wellness said there are protocols and regulations in place for long-term care facilities. However, medical staff are responsible for developing and implementing patient care plans.
These plans dictate when a patient can be supervised or unsupervised during an activity and when changes in medication are needed. They also can change as per client needs.
The spokesperson also said when it comes to determining if a client needs immediate medical attention at the hospital for non-life-threatening issues, the doctors and registered nurses assess the situation using their medical expertise.
Whitty’s family isn’t sure what their next steps are but haven’t ruled out legal action or filing complaints against the nursing home or Whitty’s doctor. They have requested copies of her medical records and are exploring all options they can pursue.
They want someone to be held accountable for Whitty’s death and they hope telling her story will help prevent something like this from happening in the future.