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Health (18-24)

Desperate and near starvation, his wife drove him 1,000 kilometres for the care that saved him

December 13, 2023

Scott Russell waited 6 weeks to hear from a surgeon who says he didn’t get any calls

Two people sit on a couch in a living room.
Scott Russell was starving and in pain for weeks while waiting to hear back from a specialist. His wife, Mina Campbell, says something has to change so that no one else has to go through what they experienced. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

CBC News: Labrador resident Scott Russell had been in such intense pain and near starvation — he had lost about 90 pounds, or nearly half of his weight — that his wife drove more than 1,000 kilometres to Corner Brook, N.L., to get him the medical care he needed. 

Russell and his wife Mina Campbell had waited for months to hear from a cardiovascular surgeon in St. John’s, but Campbell said when they eventually saw the surgeon, he told them he had never received a call.  “He [the surgeon] was surprised, he said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Campbell said. “Whatever happened shouldn’t have happened because Scott was starving to death all this time.” 

Campbell said something has to change so that no one else has to spend months waiting for a phone call that never comes, worried their loved one will die. 

A woman sits at a table with a window behind her. She has a variety of traditional Indigenous tattoos visible on her arms.
Campbell says there’s no reason she and her husband had to spend weeks worried he was going to starve to death while waiting to hear from a specialist. (Heidi Atter/CBC)
Recurring pain

Russell had a blockage in an artery from his stomach to his bowels in 2022. It caused intense pain after eating. In October 2022, after Russell had a stent put in by a surgeon in St. John’s, he was slowly able to eat and return to normal. 

In February 2023, the symptoms reappeared. Campbell said they were the same — intense pain after eating.  “He’s not eating, he can’t eat because he knows he’s going to be in pain,” Campbell said. “He was drinking Boost and Ensure and all this stuff but none of it was working.”

Campbell said Russell saw doctors 16 times — online, in person and at the ER — between February and the end of August. The doctors conducted tests until July, including a CAT scan that checked the artery that had the stent and found it was clear.

On Aug. 3, 2023, medical records show a referral letter was sent for Russell to see the cardiovascular surgeon again. Records also show that repeated calls were made to the surgeon’s office but they were not returned. 

Russell’s pain sent the couple to the emergency rooms at the Labrador Health Centre and Mani Ashini Clinic in Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation repeatedly throughout August.

A woman points a pen at a stack of papers.
Campbell and Russell requested and received copies of all his medical files after their experience. They shared those files with CBC News. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Campbell said each time, doctors told the couple they could only do pain management, the same as what could be done at home, while waiting for the surgeon.  By Aug. 23, Campbell said Russell had lost about 90 pounds, down to a weight of 112 pounds, and was still turned away at the Labrador Health Centre emergency room without being admitted. 

‘He was starving’

“I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t admit him because he was starving and you could tell by looking at him,” Campbell said. “He was so weak. I mean, he hadn’t eaten properly for months and he was in pain.”

She said Russell should have been admitted and monitored. “He should have been given nourishment. He should have had his pain controlled in the hospital, not at home,” Campbell said, adding that he should have been taken by medivac to St. John’s. 

Campbell said that was the tipping point.

A desperate drive

The couple decided to drive 1,040 kilometres from North West River to Corner Brook and went directly to the emergency room at the Western Memorial Regional Hospital. After an eight-hour wait, Russell was admitted early in the morning on Sept. 1. 

Labrador man’s healthcare debacle saw months of extreme pain, weight loss

WATCH | This Labrador woman details her husband’s health-care nightmare: 4 hours ago Duration 1:30

Mina Campbell was assured by doctors that follow-up calls had been placed to a cardiologist who Campbell’s husband, Scott Russell, desperately needed to see as he suffered with intense pain and was near starvation. But when Russell finally got in, the specialist told Russell he had never received any messages. Campbell says waiting is hard enough, let alone when there is a breakdown of communication in the system.

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“They did a more detailed CAT scan than what they did here and they found that he did have another blockage in another artery and this is what was causing his pain, same as it was the year before,” Campbell said. 

Medical records show that on Sept. 2, the doctor in Corner Brook decided to contact the cardiovascular surgeon on call in St. John’s rather than Russell’s regular cardiovascular surgeon. Campbell said they didn’t hear back. 

A man sits on a chair wearing a blue t-shirt, black sweater and black ball cap.
After losing weight in 2022, Russell’s surgeon inserted a stent. He was beginning to gain some weight back when a similar issue arose in February 2023. He lost an additional 80 pounds before his second stent in September 2023. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Over a week later, on Sept. 11, Russell’s cardiovascular surgeon contacted the doctors at the Corner Brook hospital, Campbell said. The next day he was transported by air ambulance to St. John’s, and on Sept. 13, he had a stent put in his second blocked artery. 

“In a couple of days, you know, he could start eating and he wasn’t having pain,” Campbell said. 

When the surgeon came to see Russell, Campbell asked for his direct contact information because they had waited more than a month to hear back from his office, she said.

Campbell said that’s when the gaps in the system came into focus. 

She said the surgeon told her he had no messages and wasn’t told anything was wrong until Sept. 11, even though Russell’s medical records show four different doctors in Labrador attempting to contact the surgeon in the month of August. 

Two people sit at a dining room table with a stack of papers in front of them.
The couple spent days going over Russell’s medical documents to write a chronological letter to the health authority and Department of Health and Community Services calling for changes. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

“There’s something wrong somewhere. There’s a miscommunication,” Campbell said. Campbell now has the surgeon’s direct number for any future incidents but said she doesn’t want anyone else to be in this situation. She wrote a letter to multiple officials explaining what happened. 

‘System needs to change’

Campbell said the provincial government needs to look at the health-care system and address the gaps of people not being admitted when it’s needed and errors in communication between departments.

“People make mistakes, yes, but it seems like there were too many mistakes made in this case, or too many things overlooked,” Campbell said. “I see the doctors and nurses working very hard…. But I think it’s the system that needs to change.”

N.L. Health Services refused an interview but provided a written statement. It said they are actively working to improve patient care. It said emergency rooms go by a triage system.  The statement said doctors will send referrals to specialists based on how their symptoms are triaged, and wait times can vary. It said improving wait times is a priority for Health Services and new initiatives are being reviewed.

The Department of Health and Community Services did not respond directly to questions but did say the situation detailed in Campbell’s letter is “unfortunate.” The department said it is “requesting N.L. Health Services to investigate and advise the department of any measures that need to be taken.”

Health Minister Tom Osborne replied to Campbell’s letter personally on Dec. 11. The letter stated that it was being investigated by N.L. Health Services. 

Russell has gained about 30 pounds since being able to eat after his surgery in September.


Heidi Atter, Mobile Journalist

Heidi Atter is a journalist working in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. She has worked as a reporter, videojournalist, mobile journalist, web writer, associate producer, show director, Current Affairs host and radio technician. Heidi has worked in Regina, Edmonton, Wainwright, and in Adazi, Latvia. Story ideas? Email