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An Indigenous woman in Edmonton alleges that mistreatment, racism and neglect at a community hospital led to her baby dying alone after, the woman says, she was forced into labour with no assistance from doctors or nurses.
Pearl Gambler’s lawsuit alleges that both she and her baby experienced a “complete lack of care or treatment” and that hospital staff asked her what she wanted to do with her “specimen” after her baby died on June 12, 2020.
Gambler, a member of Bigstone Cree Nation, is suing Covenant Health, which runs the Misericordia Community Hospital, as well as a physician for $1.39 million, alleging they failed to provide her with adequate medical care, which she believes was racially motivated.
At a news conference on Thursday, Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey said Gambler’s experience is yet another example of systemic racism against Indigenous people in the health-care system.
The allegations in the statement of claim have not been tested in court.
According to the statement, Gambler was about 18 weeks into her pregnancy when she began experiencing cramps; she went to a clinic and was told to go to the hospital for a possible cervical stitch, which helps keeps a woman’s cervix from opening too soon before delivery.
The statement of claim says she was told there was a bed waiting for her. When she arrived, it says, a staff member looked her up and down and said, “There’s nothing here for you.”
At Thursday’s news conference, Gambler described the staff member’s tone as dismissive. She highlighted that at the time her hair was braided and she wore a shirt that said “Strong, Resilient, Indigenous”; she said she believes the attitude of staff was motivated by racial prejudice.
After waiting in the emergency department for several hours, she said, she was eventually sent to a room, given an emergency ultrasound and kept overnight.
In the morning, two obstetricians told Gambler they couldn’t conduct a vaginal exam because there were concerns it would disrupt the fetus, lead to contractions and possible premature delivery.
The next day, a physician whose name is redacted in the statement of claim released to media, said she needed to perform the vaginal exam. Gambler resisted because she was told it was dangerous. She eventually “consented under duress,” the statement of claim says, and she experienced immense pain that she said she never experienced before (Gambler has two other children).
She immediately began experiencing contractions. At this point, the physician who conducted the vaginal exam was gone.
“I was crying and staff kept on coming in, just random staff, asking if I was OK. Telling me they would get a doctor, telling me they would get a nurse,” Gambler said Thursday. “Nobody came.”
She said both she and her partner pleaded with a male nurse to get a doctor, but no one came. She said her contractions intensified, her water broke and still, no help came.
Gambler said she eventually went into labour with the male nurse in the room. The lawsuit alleges the nurse “provided her no care and did not call any physician.”
She said the nurse froze and covered his mouth.
“He just stood there and he watched me,” Gambler said. “I kept on hitting the buzzer, I was screaming and screaming and asking God to help me. Help my baby. And he stood there and he just watched me.”
The nurse left the room at some point and said he was going to get a doctor, but he never came back, Gambler said. She said several nurses came into the room about 20 to 30 minutes after she delivered her baby, whom she named Sakihitowin Azaya Gambler.
She alleges that at this point, the delivery doctor entered the room and assured her the baby was healthy. She said that was the last time she saw her.
Shortly after they cut the umbilical cord, Gambler said, a nurse told her Sakihitowin was “gone.”
Gambler said her daughter was taken from her, put in a wicker basket and delivered to a nursing station that resembled a lunch room.
Sakihitowin died there, the claim asserts.
“My daughter was left in a basket … on a shelf in their lunch room. With no blanket, no support, nothing,” Gambler said.
One of the main points of contention is when exactly Sakihitowin died. Gambler and her lawyer say they obtained medical records which show her daughter was still “gasping for air” when her mother was told she was gone.
The lawsuit says her daughter was not provided with any medical care after she was born, nor was a doctor called to assess her or Gambler. She said she never received an explanation or cause of death; there is no record of the time of death, the statement of claim says.
“It’s in the medical records that she was still alive when they took her and they told me she was gone. She was not gone. But she passed away by herself in that basket in that nursing station, with no help,” Gambler said.
After her daughter’s death, Gambler said, a staff member came to her hospital room and asked her what she wanted to do with her “specimen.”
She alleges that they further tried to talk her out of a burial and suggested cremating the baby at the hospital because it would be cheaper. She said they repeatedly asked her if she could afford a funeral.
Gambler said she lost faith in the health care system due to her experience at Misericordia.
“I went there to seek medical help,” she said. “Not to be treated like that.”
“Pearl was left to deliver her baby alone. Her child was left to die alone. And the hospitals still refuses to acknowledge Sakihitowin’s life,” Noskey said Thursday.
“Mrs. Gambler and her daughter were not treated with humane dignity. Unfortunately, this kind of treatment is all too familiar to Indigenous people across the country,” he continued, adding that “Indigenous lives continue to be less important than others in Alberta’s health care system. This has to change.”
Noskey called for a hospital-wide review of anti-Indigenous discrimination at Misericordia, a public inquiry into adverse health effects for Indigenous people in the broader system and increased and regular cultural training for health care staff.
He further urged action on the health recommendations in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which includes calls to provide cultural competency to health-care professionals, and for all medical and nursing schools to require students to take a course centred on Indigenous health issues.
In a statement, Covenant Health spokesperson Karen Diaper said it’s reviewing the allegations but could not comment on specific patient cases due to confidentiality: “Covenant Health takes any and all complaints and concerns seriously … Racism and discrimination in all forms have no place within Covenant Health.”
Alberta Health Services spokesperson Kerry Williamson outlined some of the steps it has taken to make health care more inclusive for Indigenous people, including employing Indigenous liaisons to provide traditional medicines and cultural practices, as well as providing support to patients and training and education to staff.
Williamson added that all staff are required to complete Indigenous awareness and sensitivity training.
“We know many Indigenous Peoples do not seek care for an illness or injury because they do not feel safe or welcome within the health system, or that they believe their cultural traditions will not be respected or understood … AHS will continue to work with Indigenous communities and our partners to improve the care we provide, ensuring culturally safe, accessible health care for everyone.”
Gambler said Thursday that she is now too afraid to have another child in Alberta’s health-care system.
“I couldn’t (attend medical appointments) for a long time,” she said. “I was very triggered. The trust was gone.”
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