Put yourself for a moment in the shoes of Wanda Zimmerman.
You’re still grieving over the unexpected death of your sister, Teresa Ann Scheunert, who had worked as a nurse in Watson Lake until she died in the summer of 2012. More than anything, you’d like to have questions surrounding Scheunert’s death put to rest – conflicting reports suggest she either died as a result of an irregular heartbeat, or from consuming a lethal combination of painkillers while in hospital.
You’ve already had to wait a year for the coroner to release her report into Scheunert’s death. That report was promptly contradicted by the hospital report’s own findings, which rebuffed the coroner’s assertion that the health-care system failed your sister.
You had hoped that the upcoming coroner’s inquest would provide some clarity. But those hopes are fading.
You’ve recently learned the inquest has been delayed until this summer, to allow hospital officials and doctors to appropriately lawyer up. You, unfortunately, don’t have similarly deep pockets.
You can’t afford a lawyer, and no government agency has offered to pay for your legal representation at the inquest. As a resident of Alberta, you’re similarly on the hook for the cost for travel and accommodation to attend the inquest in Whitehorse – a cost that the government seems happy to cover for other parties attending the inquest, but not yourself.
Coroner’s inquests aren’t intended to assign blame. But they are supposed to shed light on what caused a death. You worry that the way the cards are stacked, the government will use its obvious advantage in the proceedings to diminish its role in your sister’s death.
You’ve been told that having a lawyer isn’t a requirement to attend an inquest, and that during past inquests other family members have represented themselves. That doesn’t change the fact that you will be walking into a room full of lawyers intent to shield the government from embarrassment or legal culpability. Without legal representation yourself, you may not know which questions are the right ones to ask witnesses.
These matters shouldn’t simply be the concern of Zimmerman. It should trouble anyone who wonders whether the health-care system did indeed fail Scheunert, as well as Mary Johnny, both of whom passed away within two months of one another following hospital treatment in Watson Lake during the summer of 2012.
Johnny was misdiagnosed as suffering from alcohol withdrawal, when in fact she had an obstructed bowel, according to the coroner’s report. By the time she transferred to Whitehorse General Hospital it was too late. Her case will also be examined during the forthcoming inquest, and her family faces a predicament similar to Scheunert’s.
Inquest jurors will reach their own conclusions, but they should have the benefit of knowing that the inquest is conducted on a level-playing field. As it stands, that won’t be the case.
There’s also the matter of who presides over the inquest. It’s a relief to hear that Yukon’s chief coroner, Kirsten Macdonald, has realized it would be inappropriate for her to do the job herself. It was baffling that this wasn’t immediately obvious, given how Macdonald’s report into Scheunert’s death forms a part of the controversy.
Macdonald says she will find another coroner to preside. But given how everyone seems to be gearing up in preparation for a lawsuit for negligence or malpractice, and given how the past inquest into Raymond Silverfox’s death triggered repeated court appeals caused by questionable decisions made by Macdonald’s predecessor, this is probably a job that would be best handled by a judge.
To date, the response of territorial ministers has been to shrug and say that they trust the process. But it’s hard to have faith in the process when the process appears flawed. Certainly, it appears that way when you look at things from Zimmerman’s viewpoint.
Our territorial politicians face a choice. They can follow their usual instincts to minimize any potential embarrassment and decline to help the families of Scheunert and Johnny represent themselves at the inquest. Or they could show a little decency, see beyond the legal wrangling and political point-scoring, and ask themselves how they would like to be treated if they were in the position of Scheunert and Johnny’s families. The answer should be obvious. (JT)