Doctor Charged in Patient's Death

Late last September, Paul Mills’s family was deeply distressed over his battle with throat cancer in a Moncton, N.B., hospital. In the hope that more advanced treatment might help, they transferred him to the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.

Doctor Charged in Patient's Death

Late last September, Paul Mills's family was deeply distressed over his battle with throat cancer in a Moncton, N.B., hospital. In the hope that more advanced treatment might help, they transferred him to the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax. But the gamble did not pay off; six weeks later, on Nov. 10, the 65-year-old Mills died and was returned home for burial. Last week, the family was stunned to learn that a doctor in Halifax stood accused of killing the grievously ill patient.

The arrest on a first-degree murder charge of 41-year-old Dr. Nancy Morrison - named just last December as the Dalhousie University medical school's professor of the year - shocked both her colleagues and the public. In the aftermath, both the hospital and Halifax Regional Police fielded numerous calls from people demanding more information about the deaths there of relatives and friends. Hospital employees had to reassure worried families of patients now being kept alive with machines. "We are responding to as many questions as we can to alleviate their concerns," said spokesman Peter Spurway. And across the nation, the case refuelled the debate over patients' rights and the morality of medically assisted suicide.

Last week, that debate focused on Morrison, a specialist in respirology and a highly regarded member of the QE II complex's medical staff. Her actions at the time of Mills's death had already come under internal scrutiny. Last November, a hospital review board suspended her for three months with pay from her duties in the intensive care unit where Mills died. However, a group of unidentified staff members, dissatisfied with the way that review was handled, took their concerns to police.

On May 6, after a six-week investigation, detectives arrested Morrison while 65 officers searched her home and offices at the Halifax Infirmary and Victoria General Hospital buildings of the QE II complex. "I couldn't believe it was her," said one hospital employee, watching police carry boxes of files from the building. "Whatever it's about, they got the wrong person." The following day, Morrison - appearing pale and shaky and accompanied by husband Greg Baker - was arraigned in provincial court. Chief Justice Constance Glube of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court later released her on $10,000 bail. Glube banned the publication of evidence.

Outside the courtroom, reporters asked Crown attorney Craig Botterill if the case involved issues such as assisted suicide. "Euthanasia and mercy killing are not terms known in Canadian law," he replied. "This is a first-degree murder charge and I'm arguing that she killed him." Morrison's defence lawyer, Joel Pink, called his client "100 per cent innocent." Branding the huge police raid on the hospital and offices "overkill," Pink said: "There are a lot of people who are going to be shocked when they hear all the facts, that the Crown would put her through what she's going to have to go through."

In Moncton, Mills's widow, Dorice Lastowski, said that although her ailing husband could communicate only by blinking in response to questions, he had never said he wanted to die. The family had agreed to have life-support devices gradually reduced, said his son, Ron, and they understood that the point "was more or less to let nature take its course." Outside the Halifax courtroom, a relative of Morrison, who asked that her name not be used, said that moments before Mills died, "he was gasping for air" and she speculated that he would likely have died within the hour.

In most provinces, the law empowers doctors to withdraw life-support at the request of a terminally ill patient, but not to hasten death. "Our courts and legislatures," said Ingrid Krueger, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Alliance for Life, "need to assure our vulnerable elderly, sick or disabled members of society that they will not be killed, but cared for."

The arrest in Halifax raised alarm across the country. From Winnipeg, Helen Goyette asked police to investigate the death of her mother, Audrey Uloth, at QE II last month. She said Uloth became incoherent after radiation treatments for breast cancer and the surgical insertion of an intravenous line, and died six days later. "It's how she died that freaks us out because of what's happened," Goyette said. Pink said Morrison was not working in the intensive care unit when Uloth died there.

Although Morrison may well be the first doctor in Canada to be charged with murdering a patient, she is not the first to be criminally implicated in a wrongful death. Dr. Maurice Genereux of Toronto faces five charges arising from the 1996 death of an AIDS patient and the attempted suicide of another the year before. In 1993, Dr. Alberto de la Rocha of Timmins, Ont., received a three-year suspended sentence for aiding in the death of an elderly cancer patient. One of the country's most sensational hospital-related cases arose from the drug-induced deaths of eight infants in Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children in 1981. Nurse Susan Nelles, charged with murder in four of the deaths, was cleared of any involvement.

But whatever awaits Nancy Morrison, it is a long way off. Those who knew her were openly bewildered by last week's events. "She has always been very careful and caring," said family physician Dr. Kingsley Gill, who referred patients to the defendant. Added a friend who requested anonymity: "I just wish we could get her side out." That opportunity will come, in the courtroom, in the emotionally charged weeks ahead.

Maclean's May 19, 1997