This story is part of a series examining systemic discrimination against Indigenous patients within the nursing profession in British Columbia. To read Part 1 of the series, Click here.
When Penny Kerrigan arrived at Mills Memorial Hospital in northern British Columbia, she says the morphine she had been given before her medevac flight from Haida Gwaii was gone.
“I felt extreme pain,” said the Haida elder, who served as British Columbia’s community liaison officer for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
She was flown to the hospital in Terrace, BC, from her home community of Old Masset on October 19, 2020, after a doctor told her she needed a CT scan to determine the cause of her severe stomach pain.
Kerrigan didn’t know it then, but she was suffering from appendicitis that would soon require emergency surgery.
However, instead of receiving a CT scan or any diagnosis of this painful and potentially fatal condition, Kerrigan says she was discharged from the hospital to an unknown city in the middle of the night.
She alleges that the nurses who treated her treated her roughly and with disdain, denied her prescription pain medication, and gave her only regular-strength Tylenol to deal with her discomfort.
“I’ve been to a lot of different hospitals,” he said. “I have never, ever experienced anything like this.”
Kerrigan filed a human rights complaint against Northern Health over her treatment that day, alleging anti-Indigenous discrimination by the doctors and nurses she encountered.
In July, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal issued a decision approving the health authority’s request to add the doctor who saw Kerrigan that night as a defendant.
Kerrigan spoke to CBC as part of a series about anti-Indigenous racism within nursing and how the province’s largest regulator of health professionals, the College of Nurses and Midwives of BC, says it is trying to address that widespread problem.
He said education about the history of Canada’s discriminatory, oppressive and abusive policies toward Indigenous peoples should be a priority for anyone who wants to be a nurse, along with training and accountability to eliminate dangerous stereotypes.
“Maybe because I come from an Indigenous community… I felt like they thought I was looking for drugs,” Kerrigan said of her experience at the hospital in Terrace, a small town about 700 kilometers northwest of Vancouver.
“How could they do this to me? How could they do this to anyone? It doesn’t matter what color your skin is.”
Health authority denies discrimination
According to the court’s decision, Northern Health denied discriminating against Kerrigan and said its treatment of her was appropriate and reasonable.
The health authority said all evaluations and treatment orders are made by doctors such as Dr. Daniel Abraham Beer Torchinsky, the doctor who discharged Kerrigan.
Northern Health declined to comment while the case is still before the court. Torchinsky has not responded to multiple requests for comment made through his attorney.
Kerrigan alleges that staff at Mills Memorial Hospital were immediately hostile after learning she came from Old Masset on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago about 100 kilometers off the north coast of British Columbia. She also said a nurse was unnecessarily harsh on her while inserting an IV, leaving her with multiple bruises.
Then, when he asked to speak to a surgeon he had seen on a previous visit, he was allegedly told the surgeon was no longer at the hospital, which was not true, according to the court’s July decision.
After Kerrigan was released late at night with nowhere to go, she managed to find a taxi and get a room at a local hotel.
“I was up all night in pain and couldn’t sleep,” she said.
SEE | Penny Kerrigan discusses alleged bias at BC hospital:
Distraught by her experience at Terrace, she tried to make plans to fly to Vancouver and seek treatment at a hospital there.
But after Kerrigan’s condition continued to worsen and her daughter spoke with hospital administrators, Kerrigan agreed to return to Mills Memorial, the court decision says.
She says when she arrived that morning for her second visit, there were different nurses on duty and they treated her with kindness and respect.
He also learned that the surgeon he had seen earlier was still in the hospital, contrary to what he had been told.
“He looked at the x-rays and saw that he had appendicitis,” Kerrigan said.
That day he had emergency surgery to remove his appendix.
‘I’m not looking for money’
Kerrigan says the experience has left her anxious and fearful about seeking medical care.
Since having her appendix removed, she had to be rushed to the emergency room at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver after an allergic reaction to shellfish.
“I had that moment of, ‘Oh my God, I hope they’re good nurses.’ When I walked into the room and the paramedics left, that’s where the trauma started,” she said.
Fortunately, Kerrigan says, the nurses she saw that day were attentive and competent, but she remained on guard throughout the visit.
At this time, he does not have a timeline for when his human rights complaint will be heard. The court still faces a significant delay, in part due to complaints related to COVID-19 vaccination and masking policies.
But Kerrigan says she told her lawyer she’s in this for the long haul.
“He actually asked me what I wanted and I said, ‘I’m not after money. I said you need to change your policies. This is not just racism, it’s systemic discrimination,'” she said.