A Quebec nurse who was fired for insulting Joyce Echaquan as she lay dying in hospital last September apologized to the patient’s family Thursday during a coroner’s inquest, admitting her derogatory comments were cruel.
The Quebec coroner’s inquiry is examining the circumstances of Echaquan’s death on Sept. 28, 2020, at the hospital in Joliette, Que., northeast of Montreal. Echaquan, a 37-year-old Atikamekw mother of seven, used her phone to film herself at the hospital as a nurse and an orderly were heard insulting and mocking her not long before she died.
The nurse, who is currently unemployed, is heard at various points in the seven-minute video after Echaquan had fallen for a second time that day, saying the Atikamekw woman was stupid, good for sex, a drain on the health system and better off dead.
“I know that I was cruel and I apologize,” the nurse, 54, told the inquiry in tears. She also addressed Echaquan’s family directly: “I beg your forgiveness for what I said. I’m sorry, I too wouldn’t have liked someone to talk like that to someone in my family.”
She said she was overworked and stressed when she made the comments toward Echaquan, adding that the hospital had a labour shortage made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coroner, who is also overseeing an inquiry into COVID-19 deaths in long-term care homes in the province, said being overworked is not an excuse.
The nurse insisted she didn’t insult Echaquan because the patient was Indigenous.
“I was angry, I’ve never spoken to a patient like this, and I wasn’t angry at her because she was an Atikamekw patient, I was angry at the situation, the workload, the pressure,” she said.
She said she found Echaquan’s phone and noticed it was recording because she could see her face on the screen, adding that she quickly pressed “delete.”
The nurse denied or said she couldn’t remember making other derogatory or displaced comments toward Echaquan that were not caught on video but reported by emergency room witnesses.
She testified that she didn’t have issues with treating Atikamekw patients but said they were more reserved than non-Indigenous patients. She said that when they started speaking to each other in their native language, she thought they were laughing at her.
The nurse said that when she heard her comments in the video later, she couldn’t believe she had uttered them. “When I heard it, I was like, ‘it’s not me,”’ she said.
The inquiry has not heard the cause of Echaquan’s death.
Echaquan was transported to hospital on Sept. 26 with severe stomach pains. The inquiry has heard that she had numerous health problems including diabetes, heart issues and a pacemaker.
A gastroenterologist who examined Echaquan has told the inquiry he believed she was going through opioid withdrawal and had scheduled a colonoscopy to figure out what was causing the stomach pains.
The Echaquan family lawyer in his questioning has asked whether medical staff were too focused assuming she was on drugs and ignored other possible ailments.
Echaquan was also given the antipsychotic drug Haldol to calm her after she became agitated on the morning of her death, despite having heart trouble. She was put in restraints twice during her stay, including before her death.
Her family has testified Echaquan was fearful of getting treatment at the hospital because she had alleged previously been abused and insulted there by staff and had been allegedly overmedicated and restrained.
Some witnesses have told the inquiry a mutual mistrust exists between staff and Indigenous patients at the hospital.
Also Thursday, coroner Gehane Kamel appealed for calm after one of the lawyers for the regional health authority said nurses who had testified during the inquest had received death threats. The identities of hospital staff are under publication bans.
Quebec provincial police have been notified of the threats, the coroner said.