Updated: Aug 14
Andrea Wildman before (left) and after (right) entering George Pearson Centre
By Spencer van Vloten
July 2nd, 2021
In part 2 of our series on Vancouver's notorious George Pearson Centre, we'll tell the story of Andrea Wildman, who entered Pearson happy and optimistic, only to become a shell of herself in a place where compassion isn't a priority.
The Curse of George Pearson Centre - #4: An Unbreakable Bond
A GREAT PLACE TO LIVE
Andrea Wildman’s life changed forever on November 19th, 2019.
It was just a fall down the stairs in her Fort St. John home, not something that would usually bother the 52-year-old motorcycle aficionado and crane operator, but this time the effect was devastating: Andrea's spinal cord was severed, leaving her paralyzed.
Lucky to be alive, she was flown to Vancouver General Hospital, where she would spend the next 10 months in a spinal cord unit.
Despite the severity of her injury, Andrea, now requiring a ventilator to breath, remained in high spirits.
She had long, upbeat talks and texting sessions with friends and family, her hair was styled by the VGH staff during 'spa days', and she enjoyed being taken outside for strolls in her wheelchair.
Andrea enjoying the outdoors (L) and with family at VGH shortly after her fall (R), with daughter Sarah on the right
Then the words George Pearson Centre came up for the first time.
Around 10 months after she first arrived at VGH, the time had come for Andrea to find somewhere to live permanently.
Her family were eager to have her close to home, back with them in Fort St. John, but were told that none of the care facilities in the area accepted ventilator dependent residents.
Vancouver's George Pearson Centre did, however. And, the family was informed, it would be a great place for her to live.
"I'M REALLY SCARED"
Andrea entered George Pearson Centre in September 2020, nearly a year after her fall.
On the day she arrived she was excited and optimistic about the future. During her time at VGH she’d been making progress with her recovery, and was looking forward to continuing her improvement in Pearson.
Although far from home, she still talked with her family and friends regularly, finding strength in her connection to them and making everyone hopeful that it would work out.
But within days things started to change.
After having been in regular contact for the previous 10 months, it was becoming difficult for her family in Fort St. John to reach her, as their calls – both to her and Pearson staff - started going unanswered and unreturned.
their calls - both to her and Pearson staff - started going unanswered and unreturned
When her family finally managed to contact her, they noticed that something else changed too.
Once talkative and cheerful, Andrea had turned inwards, becoming increasingly reserved. At first, she described her feelings of isolation at Pearson, where only 22 percent of the residents are female.
Then over the weeks, entire calls would pass with her only uttering a couple words, which became more and more worrying:
"No one cares"
“I’m really scared”
Something had obviously changed in Andrea Wildman once she entered George Pearson Centre, and staff were reluctant to provide information. 760 miles away, her family in Fort St. John decided that they needed to get to the bottom of it.
RIDDLED WITH INFECTION
Increasingly worried about the state of her mother’s well-being, Andrea's daughter Sarah made the 15-hour drive from Fort St. John to see for herself what was going on.
Upon arriving in Vancouver and entering George Pearson Centre, she found her mother alone in a corner, left in her wheelchair, facing the wall.
"She was so out of it. She was completely loopy, not making any sense. And there was so much buildup of skin between her finger and toenails, it was disgusting."
Sarah also noted that her mom, now a husk of her former self, was burning with a fever, to which staff responded by saying that everything was fine, and that her mom was merely at her 'baseline', an explanation they'd come to use repeatedly.
Andrea at George Pearson Centre
Sarah remained unconvinced, however, and after many requests her mom was finally taken to Vancouver General Hospital, where doctors confirmed the family’s suspicions.
“The Pearson staff had assured us she was okay, but it turns out she was riddled with infection.”
At VGH it was discovered that she had serious lung and urine infections, which VGH doctors attributed to poor hygiene. Since Andrea was unable to clean herself, it was the responsibility of Pearson staff to do it for her, but the indications were that it hadn't been happening.
For the next few weeks, Andrea remained at VGH as hospital staff treated her infections and helped nurse her back to health
Like many other Pearson residents, once away from the institution Andrea's situation took a turn for the better. In addition to her improving health, she started communicating more, her mood brightened, and glimpses of the old Andrea appeared.
But she could only stay at VGH for so long. She was soon well enough to be discharged, and within days of returning to George Pearson Centre began to retreat into her shell once more.
Paul Caune, a civil rights activist and former George Pearson Centre resident, has referred to Pearson as a place of ‘cruel compassion’.
It's a place where the recognition of residents as human beings with unique feeling, needs, and desires simply doesn't exist.
For Sarah, one particular phone call with a Pearson nurse left no doubt about it.
When she asked the nurse what could be done to improve her mom’s quality of living, they laughed dismissively.
"She’s on a feeding tube, and in wheelchair" - as if those limited her to a life of mere subsistence.
To Sarah, it reflects an ongoing lack of compassion at George Pearson Centre, where the residents are treated as things that are there simply to survive, and not as people who, with the right support, can lead happy, fulfilling lives.
“At VGH, the nurses were so caring and engaged; it was a completely different atmosphere. They’d do her hair, dress her up in her favourite clothes, and take her outside for walks and cute photos. “
At Vancouver General Hospital, staff would style Andrea's hair, take her outside, and keep her in high spirits
“At Pearson, she’s kept in a hospital gown, she's told she can't go outside, and they just place her in a corner to stare at a wall."
And the reason for that, in Sarah's view:
"They just doesn’t care.”
A LARGER ISSUE
It was Andrea’s birthday on June 28th.
Instead of spending it in celebration, she spent in George Pearson Centre, 1 of the 10 residents in a boiling, open room without air conditioning. This comes amid a wave of heat-related deaths across BC, which has experienced its hottest summer ever.
It's stuff like this that weighs on Sarah's mind constantly, as she worries about her mother. But the situation at George Pearson Centre is part of something bigger.
“My main concern is that I don’t feel safe with her being there. But as a larger issue, something's seriously wrong with how long-term care functions, and the authorities don’t do anything; they just make excuses and try to ignore the problems.”
something's seriously wrong with how long-term care functions....and the authorities don't do anything
For Sarah, it needs to start with helping families
“More needs to be done to educate families and create more options for them so they don't end up putting loved ones in places like Pearson."
"Once they’re there, it’s hard to get them out, and people don’t realize how bad it is until it’s their loved one."
Stay tuned for part 3
For more on George Pearson Centre see The Curse of George Pearson Centre - #1: A Place for Captives and Incurables and The Cruel Compassion of George Pearson Centre
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!