Sam Woo with family, before and after his accident
April 19th, 2022
"They know our weakness is being unable to see dad, and use that against us"
Sam Woo's story highlights how families are pushed aside in BC's long-term care system, where power's tilted away from them and their loved ones, and towards long-term care operators.
Sam Woo was a quiet man.
Originally from South Korea, he immigrated to Canada in 1990 with his family. Known for his talented handiwork, he established a successful business renovating homes and was a leader in the South Korean community.
Sam's great passion was fixing things, and he also enjoyed spending long afternoons working away on his garden.
Life in Canada was going well, and though he missed the family he had back in South Korea, he loved his new country.
But life would take a dramatic turn.
While on the job one day in 2015, he took a hard fall off a ladder and cracked his head.
He was rushed to Vancouver General Hospital, where he'd spend nearly a month in the intensive care unit with a major brain injury.
Once an image of self-reliance, Sam was now unable to care for himself and required a tracheostomy to breathe.
Adjusting to this new way of life would obviously be a challenge, but his family still wasn't prepared for what was to come once he entered the long-term care system.
Sam before his accident
Once Sam's condition was under control, he was discharged from VGH to George Pearson Centre, also in Vancouver.
His daughter Sharine was determined to do the best for her father, but she and the rest of the family had no experience with long-term care, and felt overwhelmed.
It also didn't help that problems started the very day Sam arrived at Pearson.
Despite being extremely sensitive to noise, Sam was forced to live communally with a resident whose customized bed endlessly creaked, making Sam anxious and unable to rest.
Worried about her father as she noticed him wilting under anxiety and exhaustion, Sharine asked the staff if Sam could move rooms, but the response was far from sympathetic.
She was told the family was being overly demanding and complaining too much, and that Sam would just have to live with it. The clashes continued as the family kept advocating for Sam, and with his anxiety peaking Sharine started looking for another facility, eventually getting him a spot in Surrey's CareLife Fleetwood.
Initially, everything seemed great at Fleetwood: Sam had a private room, the noise was under control, and the family was optimistic that things would improve.
But, as they soon discovered, the problems with long-term care in BC ran much deeper than one institution.
Sam after his accident, with daughter Sharine on the right
Sam arrived at CareLife Fleetwood in 2016.
While his new room was nicer and the increased privacy was much easier on his anxiety, his health declined.
He ended up in Surrey Memorial Hospital so often with infections and pneumonia that Sharine called it his second home.
Tension grew between the family and Fleetwood, as the family believed that Sam's increasing hospitalizations reflected the staff's tendency to downplay their concerns, ignore warning signs, and let problems grow out of control.
"It was staff-centered care, not about my father. They didn't listen to the residents or families, even though we know dad and his body better than anyone."
As is often the case in BC's long-term care institutions, the family also had to step in to provide much of Sam's care.
They checked his body for signs of infection and bed sores, massaged his legs, and washed him from head to toe.
Unhappy with the quality of care and the staff's reluctance to work together, the family successfully applied for a transfer and in 2017 Sam was on the move again, this time to Vancouver's Purdy Pavilion.
Sharine was hopeful that things would improve at Purdy, but the cycle of neglect and hospitalizations continued.
Sores sprouted all over his body, he struggled more with breathing, started passing out, and his discomfort was obviously growing.
His family urged that he be taken to hospital, but, once again, the response was that they were overreacting, didn't know what they were talking about, and that his situation was under control.
Sam didn't get better though, and when he was finally hospitalized it was discovered that he'd been suffering from pneumonia, multiple infections, and seizures.
It was discovered that he'd been suffering from pneumonia, multiple infections, and seizures
Sam's condition had deteriorated so much that he needed to spend the next two months in Vancouver General Hospital - even longer than his stay when he was first injured.
During this period Sharine met with his doctors daily, and the care and respect provided in the hospital was, in her words, 'far beyond' what had been offered in any of the long-term care facilities.
Thanks to his team at VGH, Sam recovered and was discharged back to Purdy in fall of 2018, where he'd stay for the next year.
Then the pandemic hit.
Sharine was anxious about her father's health as COVID spread across the province, and she called regularly to check-in on him, only to be rebuked by staff who felt she was overly involved.
The management limited her to a call per day, and warned that if she complained about the restrictions to a third party she'd be suspended from visiting.
They also limited her visiting time, meaning she was unable to provide much of the extra care for which he relied on her rather than staff - such as washing and changing him after he was left sitting in his own bowel movement for hours.
For Sharine and her family, the ongoing tensions reflected a problem in how families are viewed by long-term care facility staff.
"My dad cannot complain for himself, so family are the ones to speak out and give him a voice. The staff sees family as completely separate from my father though, so they shut down our voice and ignore it."
"They also know our weakness is being unable to see dad, and use that against us."
When the family took the issue to the BC College of Nurses and Midwives, the provincial body which regulates nursing, Sharine was confronted by Purdy management, even though the complaint was supposed to have been confidential.
No matter where they went, the Woo's couldn't escape the controlling, one-sided nature of BC's long-term care system.
REBALANCING THE SYSTEM
Anyone tempted to ask if Sam Woo's case is a one-off, or whether his family's part of the problem, should look at how numerous other families have been impacted by the same issue.
The stories of Irek Wegiel, Glen Tig, Andrea Wildman, and Kevin Peralta also demonstrate the imbalanced nature of the province's long-term care institutions, and how families are regularly pushed aside and disrespected.
"Power's very tilted toward the care home operator", notes BC's Seniors Advocate, Isobel Mackenzie.
"The residents are vulnerable and have limited choices, and the families are vulnerable because they're worried that raising frustrations may result in suboptimal care for loved ones."
Mackenzie stresses the importance of knowing one's rights and being persistent.
"Make sure that you know your rights as a family, and understand the legal rights you can exercise as a representative for your loved one in care. Learn the processes for raising issues, and most of all keep following through - don't be intimidated."
Mackenzie also wants the resident-family councils of long-term care institutions to be strengthened, and for patient care quality offices to be more responsive to the needs, requests, and concerns of residents and families, so that complaints are dealt with seriously.
Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie says there's a power imbalance in long-term care
And what does Sharine want?
The first thing's to remove the restrictions on seeing her father. Sam has been back at George Pearson Centre since mid-February, but the restrictions from Purdy carried over and the family continues to struggle with how little access they have to him.
"I want them to end the restrictions on our visiting hours, and for all families to have greater power and to be allowed to see their loved ones more."
She also wants there to be a shift in how long-term care staff think about families and residents.
"They need more empathy. They need to think as if it's their family member in the situation, and maybe then they'll understand where we're all coming from."
For more on long-term care, see Paul Caune's George Pearson Centre Is A Dumpster Fire
Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!