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Jury calls for detox centre

Coroner's inquest wraps up with 21 recommendations

Tara Kearsey
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Oct 30/02) - Fred Ruthven is optimistic that psychiatric patient care at Stanton Regional Hospital will improve after a coroner's inquest into the death of his wife last March.

Jury recommends ...

To Stanton Territorial Health Authority:

-Review release forms for temporary passes and escorts to include one column for expected time of return for the patient, one column for actual return of the patient recorded and initialed by a staff member, and one column for signature of escort upon return to the unit with the patient.

-Ensure all staff are trained on appropriate use of release forms.

-Develop a protocol for communication between Stanton and the RCMP, recognizing requirement for the RCMP to have relevant patient information in order to locate the patient.

-Develop a written procedure detailing steps to be followed in the event of a missing psychiatric patient.

To the RCMP:

-Develop and maintain a current contact list of hotels and other places of refuge.

-Replace any officer on long-term absence, such as maternity leave, to ensure staffing levels remain constant.

To retail vendors of sleep aid products in the NWT:

-Consider restricting customer access to over the counter sleep medications. To the Government of the Northwest Territories:

-Make it a priority to ensure the number of resident psychiatrists in the NWT is in keeping with national averages.

-Widen the scope of services available at the NWT's existing treatment centre to include programs that focus on drug addictions.

-Fund the establishment of a medical detoxication facility in the NWT.

Vawn Ruthven, a 36-year-old paediatric aide at Stanton, was found dead in a Super 8 Motel room March 14 after she consumed a lethal amount of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.

Voluntarily admitted to the Stanton psychiatric ward a month prior, Ruthven left the hospital on a day pass the night before to attend a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and did not return.

At the coroner's inquest last week, a jury of four women and two men heard testimony from 17 witnesses. They were guided through the events that unfolded after Ruthven left the hospital to when her body was discovered by police the following afternoon.

The jury heard Ruthven had a lengthy history of depression, panic attacks, abuse of over the counter medication and suicidal thoughts. She had voluntarily admitted herself to Stanton's psychiatric unit three times over the last year of her life.

On the night of March 13, Ruthven left the hospital on an escorted pass. The escort dropped her off at the hospital at 9:30 p.m., but she did not return to the ward.

Instead, the jury heard Ruthven checked into the Super 8 Motel, returned to her residence, gathered some of her husband's prescription medication, took the phone off the hook and returned to the hotel.

Early the next morning she visited two local pharmacies and purchased several packages of sleep medication, anti-nauseants and a small quantity of prescription medication.

Ruthven was reported missing early on March 14. A search began, but her body was not discovered until the following afternoon when police showed her picture to a Super 8 employee.

RCMP canvassed hotels in the city, but did not contact Super 8 Motel because it wasn't in their list of contacts.

Recommendations submitted by the jury after six hours of deliberation addressed levels of observation at the psychiatric ward, the granting of escort passes, patient status under the Mental Health Act, funding for treatment and hospital policies.

They also included suggestions for new policies on releasing patients on temporary passes, better communication between Stanton and the RCMP, including patient photos in hospital files, exploring a new observation policy, and better RCMP staffing levels.

The jury also directed the GNWT provide funding for a medical detoxification centre in the NWT. Chief coroner Percy Kinney said the lone existing addictions centre in the NWT deals only with alcohol addiction.

"That's the evidence that came out at the inquest, plus Vawn had a situation where she had a dual diagnosis -- a mental illness and an addiction that was related toward her way of dealing with her mental illness.

"We have a lot of people with those sorts of issues in the North and there is no where here to deal with those," said Kinney.

Ruthven's family said they were satisfied with the jury's recommendations

Fred Ruthven said the inquest provided closure.

"I think that the recommendations were very positive and they certainly covered most of the areas of concern that I had.

"But the issue now is whether or not the necessary resources can be put in place to implement most of them," said Ruthven.

Ruthven said he is not sure if he will file for a wrongful death suit against Stanton Territorial Hospital.