Warning: This story contains details that are disturbing.
A member of Bigstone Cree First Nation in Alberta says she gave birth in an Edmonton hospital while a nurse watched and did nothing to help.
In a statement of claim filed in the Court of King’s Bench in Edmonton on Oct. 12, Pearl Gambler said she went to see her obstetrician on June 11, 2020 when she was 20 weeks pregnant because she was experiencing cramping and back pain.
The visit, she said, resulted in her daughter Sakihitowin’s (Cree for love) premature birth and death.
Gambler has two other children and the cramps had seemed unusual for her.
Strong, resilient and Indigenous
When she arrived at the obstetrical unit at Misericordia Community Hospital in Edmonton, Gambler said she was wearing a shirt that said “Strong. Resilient. Indigenous.” She was also wearing her hair in two braids.
According to the court documents, a staff person at the front desk told her that “there was nothing here for you” and sent her to the emergency department.
“I went in [the hospital] to seek medical help, not to be treated like that – or my daughter,” Gambler said at a news conference hosted by First Nations of Treaty 8.- leave this sentence.
Gambler said she waited for several hours before being given a bed. She was eventually taken for an ultrasound.
At the news conference, Gambler said when she asked for the results of her ultrasound, she was told that only her doctor could give her that information. She ended up having to wait all night. Her partner was told that he had to leave due to COVID-19 restrictions.
According to the statement of claim, on June 3, 2020, Gambler underwent a obstetrical ultrasound “which showed no abnormalities.”
On June 11, “Ms. Gambler was seen by two unknown obstetricians who advised Ms. Gambler that they would not conduct a vaginal exam due to the concern that it would disrupt the cervix and result in increased contractions and the possible delivery of her premature fetus,” according to court records.
But the next morning, on June 12, a physician whose name is redacted from the documents, told Gambler “that she had to perform a vaginal exam to inspect her cervix. Ms. Gambler resisted the vaginal exam due to the information given to her by the two unknown obstetricians in the 12 hours prior to arrival.
“Ms. Gambler eventually consented under duress, and performed a vaginal exam which caused Ms. Gambler an immense amount of pain and an amount of pain that she had not experienced in any vaginal exams during her 3 pregnancies,” the statement of claim said.
Gambler said she immediately experienced the “onset of intense contractions.”
She said not all of the experience was bad.
“One nurse went above and beyond,” said Gambler referring to a nurse at the hospital who was also pregnant. “She kept coming in and checking my baby’s heart rate and she said she was worried about me.”
Gave birth without assistance
Later in the morning on June 12, Gambler “suffered a spontaneous rupture of membranes and delivered her 19-week-old fetus in the surgical room with 3 other patients, without hands on nursing care and without a physician having been called,” the statement said.
In the statement of claim it said that a male nurse stood in the corner of the room and watched her.
“Ms. Gambler repeatedly called for assistance from nursing staff at the Hospital. No nursing staff attended upon Ms. Gambler, except for a male nurse who stood in the corner of the room and watched her,” said the court documents.
“He provided her no care and did not call any physician.”
Gambler said eventually some nurses arrived and one of them took charge.
“She cut the umbilical cord and she told us I had given birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl. And then she asked me if I wanted to hold her.”
But according to the court document, the baby, Sakihitowin Azaya Gambler, “was alive and gasping for air. She was not provided with any medical care after she was born, nor was a physician called to assess her or Ms. Gambler.”
“Sakihitowin later passed away in a basket at the nursing station. There is no record of the time of death.”
Gambler said a doctor visited her briefly to confirm the news that her baby had died.
According to the statement of claim, while Gambler was hemorrhaging and prior to the delivery of her placenta after birth, a staff member came to her room and asked her what she wanted to do with the “specimen” referring to her deceased daughter.
She doesn’t feel that sufficient answers were provided to her about how her daughter died.
Gambler is suing the hospital for “failing to provide medical care” among other claims.
Her lawyer, Shelagh McGregor, said that the delay in talking about Sakihitowin’s death was due to her needing to take some time to heal and process the traumatic events.
“These events have been incredibly traumatic and she spent a lot of time working and getting to the place where she can sit here and tell her story,” said McGregor.
Gambler is suing the physician, Covenant Health and the Misericordia Hospital for $1.3 million.
McGregor also said the decision to sue was to hold the hospital accountable for their lack of care and prevent future tragedies.
“We want this to never happen again,” said McGregor.
The statement of claim also said, “the Defendants did not provide Ms. Gambler and Sakihitowin adequate medical care, in part or in whole due to Ms. Gambler’s race.”
“My daughter should not have had to fight for her life because I am Indigenous,” said Gambler.
None of the allegations have been proven in court and no statement of defence has been filed.
At the press conference, Gambler also has the support of Treaty 8 Grand Chief Nosekey. He is calling on the provincial government to make changes to prevent situations like this.
“Unfortunately this kind of treatment is all-too familiar to Indigenous people across the country,” he said.
Noskey said this is a reminder that Indigenous lives are not treated equally in the province of Alberta.
“I am asking Alberta’s new premier [Danielle Smith] to make that change,” said Nosekey.
He also called for Indigenous cultural training across the health care system.
Treaty 8 also wants the staff involved to be held accountable and for all of the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be implemented.
No comment from the hospital
Covenant Health, which operates the Misericordia, refused to comment on Gambler’s case, citing privacy concerns.
They also would not answer questions about whether their staff received anti-racism training focused on awareness of issues faced by Indigenous people.
“Covenant Health takes any and all complaints and concerns seriously, including allegations of racism and discrimination. Racism and discrimination in all forms have no place within Covenant Health,” Karen Diaper wrote in a statement.
A statement of defence has not been filed.
The Canadian Premature Babies foundation said there is a high death rate among babies who are born 20 weeks or earlier. According to their website, “premature birth is the leading cause of infant mortality nationwide and a growing healthcare concern in Canada.”
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research says, “preterm birth [before 36 weeks] may result in serious health complications for the baby and increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions later in the life; it also accounts for nearly two thirds of infant deaths in Canada.”
Gambler said since this traumatic incident, even going to the doctor for routine issues has been very difficult.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated Nov. 4.