The nurse who was caught on video hurling insults at Joyce Echaquan before her death testified at a coroner’s inquest Thursday morning that she regretted her words, and was overworked after years of staffing shortages at the hospital in Joliette, Que.
The nurse who was filmed by Joyce Echaquan moments before her death in a Quebec hospital is asking for the family’s forgiveness, and said she had never had that kind of outburst with a patient before.
The nurse, whose name is protected by a publication ban, was fired from the Centre hospitalier régional de Lanaudière in Joliette, Que., after the incident. She testified about what happened on the day the 37-year-old Atikamekw woman died during a coroner’s inquest Thursday in Trois-Rivières, Que.
A Facebook Live video that Echaquan shared the morning of her death captured the nurse saying Echaquan “was better off dead.”
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In the video, she called Echaquan a “f–king idiot,” asked her to “stop fooling around,” and said that the mother of seven was “better at sleeping around” than anything else.
Several times during her testimony, the nurse broke down and wept. She said she didn’t recognize herself when she watched the video later.
“I’m so sorry for what I said,” she told the family, who silently sat in the courtroom.
“That wasn’t me, I want to apologize, I’ve always been a good nurse.”
The family asked to have the video screened once more, in the presence of the nurse, despite having seen it the day before during the testimony of the other patient attendant who was in the video.
The nurse looked down, scratching her forehead, as it resounded through the courtroom.
Nurse describes difficult day
The witness described in detail how working conditions at the Joliette hospital had become increasingly difficult over the years.
She said the morning of Echaquan’s death, Sept. 28, 2020, was no different. She had only seen Echaquan briefly in the hallway that morning and said the patient was calm.
At around 10:15 a.m., her colleague, a student nurse, asked her for help. Echaquan was screaming and banging her head against the wall.
Staff transferred her to a private room. Once she was there, the nurse said Echaquan co-operated and calmed down a bit, and was given five milligrams of Haldol — an anti-psychotic medication that is also used as a sedative.
The nurse left to attend to other patients. Shortly after, her colleague came to get her and said Echaquan had fallen on the floor.
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As the nurse, aided by the student nurse, attended to Echaquan, the nurse testified that she was thinking “why is she doing this; why doesn’t she just let us help her.”
From there, she started losing her patience. She said she was thinking she’d have to fill out an incident report, thought about all the paperwork that she had to do that day, and thought “no one cares that we can never even have a break.”
Coroner Géhane Kamel interrupted the witness to say she would not tolerate the excuse that people are overworked, while a crisis is happening in front of them.
“There is a woman dying in front of you — because that’s what is happening — and you’re telling me you’re thinking about your break and your incident report?”
At the end of her testimony, the nurse apologized once again, addressing Echaquan’s husband, Carol Dubé, directly.
“Since it happened I’ve been thinking about it day and night. I’m asking for your forgiveness.”
In a statement at day’s end, Dubé said listening to testimony this week has been gruelling.
He said he was honest in his own testimony last week and expected the same from the medical personnel this week but pointed out that even the coroner has said several accounts were contradictory.
The absence of accountability for what happened hurts, Dubé said, but the family is still important to actively participate in the inquiry in the hope that it can improve the health-care system.
Workload doesn’t excuse comments: lawyer
Patrick Martin-Ménard, the lawyer representing Echaquan’s family, spoke to media during a break in testimony Thursday and said the Facebook Live video that Echaquan shot clearly demonstrates issues of racism and prejudice at the hospital, regardless of what the nurse said Thursday.
“We can say all we want about the workload of nurses and orderlies and the difficult working conditions,” said Martin-Ménard. “We are all well-aware of that. That being said, nothing excuses what was said on that tape.”
He also questioned if the prejudices long-held by hospital staff ultimately contributed to Echaquan’s death.
“You have to take what we see in the video in the more global context of Ms. Echaquan not receiving the health care that was required for her condition at the hospital,” he said.
“This is a result of a combination of prejudices, racism, bad attitudes by the nursing staff, the orderlies, towards Ms. Echaquan, towards the Atikamekw community of Manawan.”
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At several points during the inquest, hospital staff have testified that they believed Echaquan was dependent on narcotics or was suffering from cannabis withdrawal at the time of her hospitalization.
Martin-Ménard said he wonders whether that led the health-care workers to not take their patient seriously, and to pay less attention to Echaquan’s vital signs.
Paul-Emile Ottawa, chief of the Manawan Atikamekw Council, was shocked to hear the nurse apologize Thursday.
“The contents and the meaning of her comments were full of prejudice, so it surprises me that she is sorry,” he said.
Nurses reportedly received death threats
Kamel stopped the inquest proceedings Thursday morning after she was informed that the nurses who were caught on the video had received death threats since the beginning of the inquest.
The coroner is asking the public to remain calm.
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“Nobody is going to find a solution to this situation by wishing someone’s death,” Kamel said.
Echaquan’s family and the Atikamekw First Nation have also asked that people remain peaceful as the inquest continues.
“[The family] gives the benefit of a doubt and they don’t want any disruptions, they want to do it in a peaceful way,” said Constant Awashish, Grand Chief of the Atikamekw Nation. “What they want in the end is the truth about everything”