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Hospital bans mother from seeing son

May 31 2012

A 73-year-old mother who travelled to Victoria from South Africa to care for her seriously ill son has been banned from Victoria General Hospital after she says she tapped a nurse on the head to get her attention.

Shirley Spence, originally from England, has been sitting in her rented apartment at The Oxford in Victoria since mid-May, barred from seeing her son, Gary Abbott, 52, who was found to have a brain bleed after falling ill.

Instead, every day her long-time partner, Andrew Regan, visits Abbott.

The couple say the situation is surreal and that they keep waiting for common sense and grace to prevail - but it never does. Abbott's brothers and sisters in South Africa are incensed.

"I can't believe I'm being treated like a criminal," Spence said. She wrote an apologetic letter following the alleged incident, saying she was unaware of the no-touching policy, that no harm or aggression was intended, and that she will never touch staff in future. She ended the letter with a plea to see her son. But she was told it was not heartfelt.

Vancouver Island Health Authority said the version of events from both the mother and the nurse are fairly consistent.

On May 17, Spence says she was on one side of her son's hospital bed, a nurse was on the other side of the bed plastering an intravenous tube and Regan was at the end of the bed.

The nurse began a discussion with Regan regarding the patient's banking. Not wanting her son to hear a conversation that may upset him, but unable to make eye contact with the nurse, Spence said she leaned over the bedrail and tapped the nurse's head with her forefinger twice. When the nurse looked up, Spence mouthed, "Shh".

As the nurse left the room, she said: "I'd appreciate if you don't touch me, thank you very much," said Regan. He then told Spence he thought she had angered the nurse. To that end, when a second nurse came in the room, Spence apologized profusely and asked the nurse to relay that message.

Spence was later called into a manager's office. She expected an update on her son's condition. Instead she was told she had been immediately banned from the hospital, according to policy.

"I was crying. I said please don't do this. Let me have my afternoon with my son," Spence said. "That was May 17."

Despite what may seem like a disproportionate reprimand to the average observer, VIHA said it must support its staff on its own zero-tolerance policy concerning violence or abusive behaviour.

"Whether she tapped her or whacked her on the head it's unacceptable behaviour," said VIHA spokeswoman Shannon Marshall.

"The nurse's story doesn't vary from Mrs. Spence's as I understand it," Marshall said.

"She had her head down delivering care to the patient and Mrs. Spence whacked her or tapped her on the head. The nurse felt she was assaulted and she stood up and said 'don't touch me' and went to her manager." Visiting privileges were revoked at that time, Marshall said.

"We have a duty and obligation to protect them and to make them feel supported," Marshall said. "If they feel threatened or if they book off sick due to stress that then compromises our ability to staff a unit and care for patients.

"We are very sorry this situation has caused hardship for Mrs. Spence and we're exploring ways we can help to facilitate visits with her son. But in the interim we have to respect the wishes of our staff, and they feel overwhelmingly that they are not ready to have Mrs. Spence back on that unit."

In the neuroscience wing of the hospital, patients with head traumas are sometimes aggressive. Nurses have been assaulted in the past.

Spence was told the nurse in question is traumatized but Spence cannot believe the one incident is responsible.

In retrospect, Spence realizes she should have verbally got the nurse's attention rather than physically, but says her taps could not have hurt a baby.

When Spence was called in South Africa and told her son was in hospital with unexplained bleeding on the brain, it was inconceivable to Spence that things could get worse.

Now the mother of four, who has a heart condition, says she is confused and depressed, feeling as bleak as the day her husband died decades ago and left her a single mother.

The doctors and majority of nurses at the hospital have been extraordinarily kind and helpful - "really excellent" - the couple agreed.

Margo Wilton, of the B.C. Nurses Union, said she was not involved in the case, has not spoken to Spence and can't speak to specifics except to say: "The nurses are not ready to have that person return to the facility."

On Wednesday, for the first time, Abbott was able to talk on the phone. "He said: 'Where are you Mumsy? I love you. When are you coming to see me.' ", Spence said.

She does not want to tell him what has happened, for fear of upsetting him.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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