The Quebec coroner's office said Thursday it would investigate the case of a 65-year-old man who died after a long ambulance ride, despite assurances from the health minister earlier in the day that there were no grounds for such an inquest.
The opposition had been calling for a coroner's inquiry into the death of Richard Genest to determine, in part, whether the nighttime closure of a local emergency room had affected his chances of survival.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday morning that he'd been told the coroner had decided not to investigate the death of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue man.
That appeared to have changed by midday, however, when the coroner's office announced in a statement that Genest's death in Amos, Que., was "the subject of a coroner's investigation to shed light on the circumstances that led to the death."
The coroner's office said it can sometimes reconsider an initial decision, based on public interest. "When such a case arises and raises many questions in the public, it may be in the public interest for a coroner to look into the matter and provide objective answers to the questions," it said.
Genest's son said his father had to be transported Tuesday evening 135 kilometres by ambulance because the closest emergency room in Senneterre, Que., in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, is only open eight hours a day because of staff shortages. Miguel Genest said his father, who was experiencing severe stomach pain, had to wait 90 minutes for an ambulance because the only one serving the region was already in use.
Once in the ambulance, Genest was first brought to a hospital in Val-d'Or, Que., before he was transferred to Amos, some 70 kilometres away, where he died in the elevator on the way to the operating table, his son said in an interview Wednesday.
Miguel Genest said the surgeon in Amos questioned why his father was first taken to Val-d'Or, where there was no cardiologist on staff. He said the surgeon told him, "I was missing five minutes to be able to do something."
Premier François Legault said Thursday that regional health authorities had concluded that Genest's death was not linked to the closed Senneterre emergency room services and that the coroner had initially decided not to investigate.
He said it was Dubé who pressed authorities to take another look to make sure nothing was missed.
"We're open to a coroner's inquiry, but it was up to the coroner's office to decide; it's them who judge if it's appropriate to do an investigation," Legault told a news conference.
Senneterre Mayor Nathalie-Ann Pelchat had blamed the partial emergency room closure for the death, adding that she had tried to raise alarm bells with the government.
"We knew it would happen," Pelchat said Wednesday. "We said it from the beginning. Now it's happened and we're asking Minister Dubé to change his mind and immediately reopen the emergency 24-7 in Senneterre."
She said Genest could have been seen by a doctor much sooner had the emergency room since October not been closed from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. At the time, the Health Department said the evening closure was only temporary while the province recruited some 250 nurses to the region.
Legault, however, noted that the emergency room in Senneterre was part of the CLSC — a community services network — and that the health authority concluded the facility would not have been able to provide the specialized services Genest needed even if it were open.
He suggested that, if there was a problem, it might have been linked to the way the ambulances operated, but "at this point, we have to be careful before making conclusions."
Both the Parti Québécois and the Liberals on Thursday blamed Dubé for the decision to close the Senneterre emergency room, and all three opposition parties in the legislature called for a coroner's inquest to investigate whether the closure was a factor in the death.
"Who decided to close this emergency? It's the government, Mr. Dubé and (Premier François Legault)," Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade told a news conference Thursday at the legislature. She pointed out that the mayor of Senneterre had tried to meet with Dubé but had only been granted a few minutes.
The Parti Québécois's Joël Arseneau said opposition parties had tried to suggest alternatives to reducing hours at the emergency room, but he said Dubé had decided to move ahead with the partial closure.
Dubé on Thursday morning said the coroner has already determined there was "no link" between Genest's death and the ambulance and ER services provided.
The head of the regional health board said Wednesday in a statement that a review determined that proper protocols were followed and that the emergency room closure was not a factor in Genest's death.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2021.
Patrice Bergeron and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press