Gaps in memory and documentation mark the inquest into the death of Teresa Scheunert, which began in Whitehorse this week.
Scheunert was a registered nurse at the Watson Lake hospital. She died there on June 21, 2012 at the age of 47, two weeks after being admitted for severe back pain.
This week, six jury members have heard from Scheunert’s two daughters and members of her medical team, who were also her colleagues, in an effort to piece together the circumstances of her death.
Scheunert’s daughter Crystal Thomas remembers her mom as a warm and bubbly person who loved her grandkids and felt most at home in the Yukon.
Thomas lived with her mom in the Yukon until she was school-aged, but her mom always wanted to return, Thomas said.
“Every day she talked about wanting to go back to the Yukon.”
Scheunert returned to school to become a nurse and her dream came true when she got a job at the Watson Lake hospital a couple of years before her death.
“She loved it there,” said Thomas.
Scheunert was taking a CPR course in Whitehorse in April of 2012 when she injured her back.
She spent the next two months trying to get relief and answers for the pain.
The day after the injury, she picked up her daughter Chandre Burchill and two grandchildren from the airport for a several week long visit.
Burchill remembers her mom being mostly out of commission during that visit.
Burchill did most of the grocery shopping and housework while her mother rested for her night shifts at the hospital, she told the inquest.
“She had a really hard time with it.”
Plans to visit the Liard Hot Springs and go on hikes were derailed because of the injury.
Scheunert was managing her own pain with both Advil and prescription painkillers while trying to get the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board to investigate her claim and order an MRI to figure out what was wrong with her back.
A CT scan done in Whitehorse in May came back with inconclusive results.
Scheunert was admitted to the Watson Lake hospital for pain management on June 7.
Her daughters communicated with her daily or almost daily, according to their testimony.
They remember her complaining of frustration with the lack of progress on getting a diagnosis for her back, and fears about the strong narcotics she was using to control the growing pain.
Both daughters say they remember their mom’s speech changing, especially in the days leading up to her death, to a slow slur.
On the day before her death, both daughters spoke with their mom, and found her to be in a state of panic.
Thomas had a busy day that day, and missed several calls from her mom before answering one.
Scheunert was extremely upset, and kept saying, “I can’t believe it,” but couldn’t elaborate on what she meant, said Thomas.
Burchill also got a call from her mom that day, and she was bawling and hysterical, she said.
Her mom said she was scared and didn’t know what to do, said Burchill.
The next morning, at around 11 a.m., nurses found Scheunert unresponsive in her bed. Efforts to resuscitate her were unsuccessful and she was pronounced dead half an hour later.
Since then, Scheunert’s family has struggled to get answers to what happened, and what went wrong, they told the inquest.
No one saw Scheunert’s death coming. But a central question of the inquest is whether or not medical staff should have.
While the daughters insist that symptoms of overdose on narcotics “absolutely” match with what they heard from their mother in the days before her death, medical staff say they saw no signs that Schenuert was taking too many painkillers.
Yvonne Dekok, who attended to Scheunert on the morning of her death, found her sleeping and snoring peacefully and breathing normally more than once that morning, which is inconsistent with someone who is overdosing on narcotics.
Dekok spent years as an emergency nurse in downtown Vancouver and is very familiar with the symptoms of someone whose functions are depressed by narcotics, she told the inquest.
Scheunert’s doctor, Tanis Secerbegovic, also said she never saw Scheunert expressing symptoms that would suggest she had too many painkillers in her system.
Secerbegovic described her attempts over the course of Scheunert’s hospital stay to carefully adjust her medication so that it would relieve her pain but not cause her adverse side effects.
She called Scheunert’s stay at the hospital “a roller coaster of an admission,” because of her mood swings and changing symptoms.
Scheunert was admitted to the hospital to provide pain management and emotional support, but also in an effort to help expedite the MRI that could ultimately determine the cause of her pain, Secerbegovic told the inquest.
An MRI ordered by doctors in Watson Lake would have a waiting list of three to six months, but one ordered by the workers’ compensation board could be had in a week, she said.
Secerbegovic had hoped that Scheunert’s admission to hospital would expedite her case.
But when no progress seemed to come, the two of them made a plan for Scheunert to travel to Alberta and pay out of pocket for a private MRI. That plan would have gone ahead within a couple days, if not for Scheunert’s unexpected death.
Dr. Said Secerbegovic, Tanis’s father, said there was no hope of resuscitation when they found Scheunert on that morning.
“It looked absolutely hopeless from the start.”
But they still did everything in their power to try to revive her.
At the time, he was 95 per cent sure that a heart attack had killed her, because of her underlying risk factors, including smoking, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol.
But the cause of Scheunert’s death remains an open question. The inquest will continue to hear expert and witness testimony for the rest of this week.
After that, the jury must decide on a cause of death. They also may make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at