Coroner calls Watson Lake inquest

The Yukon's chief coroner has called an inquest into the deaths of two women who died following treatment at the Watson Lake Hospital.

The Yukon’s chief coroner has called an inquest into the deaths of two women who died following treatment at the Watson Lake Hospital.

Teresa Ann Scheunert, 47, died June 21, 2012 and Mary Johnny, 60, died less than two months later on Aug. 9.

“Most coroner’s inquests deal with only a single incident,” Yukon Coroners Service said in a bulletin.

“Chief Coroner Kirsten Macdonald says that the facts and circumstances of these two deaths are sufficiently related in time and will involve many of the same anticipated witnesses such that it will be more effective to hold a single inquest into the deaths.”

The inquest is scheduled for March 24 to April 4, 2014. Testimony will take place in Whitehorse but be televised to the Yukon College campus in Watson Lake.

Scheunert went to the hospital with severe back pain. She later died from a toxic mix of medications. The death was ruled accidental.

“It would appear from the facts that the system let down Ms. Scheunert,” Macdonald wrote in her report.

Johnny died of a bowel obstruction after being originally diagnosed as having alcohol withdrawal. Her death was ruled natural causes.

Scheunert’s family has been publicly calling for an inquiry into her death as opposed to an inquest, but say they are happy that something is being done.

“We’re very pleased. It has taken a lot of effort on our part and a lot of expense on our part but we feel it is one of the most important things we can do for her,” Scheunert’s sister, Wanda Zimmerman, said today from Alberta.

The family found out about the inquest yesterday.

They will be present for the proceedings but haven’t decided if a representative will take the opportunity to question witnesses, she said.

Many recent inquests in the territory have been overseen by a local judge acting as coroner. Macdonald said she hasn’t decided if that will happen in this case.

A jury in a coroner’s inquest does not find guilt or legal responsibility. They do have the option of making recommendations to prevent similar deaths from happening again.

Zimmerman says she hopes something can be learned from her sister’s death.

“The death of a healthy woman who worked as an RN deserves a full investigation.”

The NDP called in the legislature for an inquiry into Scheunert’s death.

“This is a victory for the families and for the public. We’re glad to see that public interest has prevailed,” said Yukon NDP health critic Jan Stick in a statement.

“We have to find out what happened in order to fix the system. We certainly hope that the inquest will allow for independent expert witnesses to testify and that the family will have an important role in the proceedings.”

Johnny died in Whitehorse General Hospital after being sent there from Watson Lake.

She was admitted to Watson Lake Hospital extremely dehydrated, with severe diarrhea and vomiting.

“The diagnosis was ‘alcoholism’ despite the abnormal vital signs, and the patient’s persistent complaint of lower abdominal pain, which was associated with nausea, vomiting, apparent melena and vomitus which smelled of stool,” Macdonald notes in her report on the death.

She writes that Johnny’s condition steadily got worse and “it would appear that her abdominal pain was not investigated with blood work or X-rays until the third day after admission. Even then, the finding of dilated loops of small bowel did not result in further investigation or intervention.”

The chief corner was critical of the lack of documentation in this case.

By the time Johnny was transferred to Whitehorse General Hospital it was too late.

According to the most recent statement, the inquest is in the public’s interest.

“The decision to proceed to inquest has been made in consideration of the ongoing public interest, the chief coroner’s concern of the accuracy of information being circulated in the media, as well as lingering questions and concerns in the community of Watson Lake and of the families of the deceased.”

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