A nurse who witnessed the final moments of an immigration detainee’s life said she felt uneasy seeing a police officer using a towel to cover the patient’s mouth to prevent him from spitting, but was too intimidated to speak up to stop it.
“I really wish I had said something,” Lisa Akey, a nurse at the Peterborough Regional Health Centre, told the inquest into the death of Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan on Friday. “But I just felt I couldn’t because of his presence and his frustration and his stature.”
She was referring to the demeanour of late OPP Const. Andy Eberhardt, one of two police officers on paid duty guarding the Somali refugee at the hospital the night of June 10, 2015.
Hassan — a man with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia — had been held in immigration detention for almost three years pending deportation before he was taken to the hospital earlier that month after suffering seizures at a maximum-security facility in Lindsay, Ont.
The 39-year-old died after a struggle in his hospital room that night.
The 15-day inquest is meant to review the circumstances of Hassan’s death so as to avoid such incidents in future. The coroner’s counsel has suggested the cause could have been cardiac arrhythmia related to schizophrenia and antipsychotic medication, physical struggle and restraints, or asphyxia.
Akey, who has had 33 years of nursing experience, started her shift at 7 p.m. on June 10, 2015, at a different part of the surgical unit where Hassan was held.
At around 9:30 p.m., a colleague came to her area and asked for help to change Hassan, who was incontinent, and give him medication. She said the man appeared calm, mumbling incoherently, and was not spitting or being aggressive.
At one point, she said to Hassan she would put a needle — a blood thinner to prevent clots — into his belly and he asked if it was for his diabetes.
“I don’t remember any issues of agitation or anything during that exchange,” noted Akey, who said knowledge of Hassan’s mental health illness “struck a chord” with her because her brother and two cousins are schizophrenic.
She said she was surprised when some staff came to her area after 10 p.m. looking for the restraint kit to limit Hassan’s movement because he was spitting, trying to bite people and smearing feces on himself and around him.
She peeked out into the hallway and saw other nurses in and out of Hassan’s room, but then everyone just dispersed shortly after 11 p.m. and returned to what they were doing.
At about midnight, Hassan’s primary nurse, Laura Colacci, came to her and asked for assistance to wash the man and clean his room.
Akey was the first person to enter the room, followed by three other nurses, Eberhardt and Peterborough police Const. Alicia McGriskin. They started getting Hassan’s dirty gown and linen off while the man was resisting, kicking and grabbing.
At one point, she saw Eberhardt putting a towel over Hassan’s mouth to stop him from spitting fecal matter at others present.
“The officer was saying, ‘Calm the f— down,’ ” Akey paused, her voice cracking. “And I felt uncomfortable. I said, ‘Hold on.’ So everybody was like, ‘What?’ I’m uncomfortable with the situation. Laura said we got to clean him up because he’s at risk for infections.”
Akey, who has since been diagnosed with PTSD, was also concerned about the use of the towel over Hassan, contrary to hospital policy.
“I was concerned the towel would go over his nose or constrict his throat. So when I was down holding his arm after he grabbed Laura’s gown, I didn’t take my eye off of his face,” Akey recalled, weeping.
Hassan looked “agitated and scary,” she remembered, and then she saw what she described as “pre-code eyes.”
“When people are losing consciousness, their eyes tend to roll back in their eye socket before they crack, before the heart stops,” said Akey. “I noticed his body tone had decreased. Then his body went limp. Then I looked up at his eyes and seen them. I call them pre-code eyes.”
A Code Blue alert was issued to resuscitate Hassan.
Early that morning, the nurses were interviewed by Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, which reviews civilian deaths and injuries involving police officers. Eberhardt, who died in 2018, and McGriskin were cleared of wrongdoing in 2016.
Akey said there was no debriefing for her and her colleagues until 2020 because they were told by the SIU not to talk about the incident with anyone.
“That’s the weight you’ve been carrying for a long time, right?” asked coroner’s counsel Julian Roy.
“Seven years,” Akey whispered.
The inquest resumes Monday.
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