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Mom vows to fight for daughter who died by suicide in hospital psychiatric unit

New Brunswick

A Charlotte County mother wants to know how her 27-year-old daughter could have died by suicide in a secure psychiatric unit of the Saint John Regional Hospital in December.

Hillary Hooper, seen here with her beloved dog, Blue, died by suicide at the Saint John Regional Hospital in December after numerous attempts to get help for depression. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Hillary Hooper was so desperate to find help for her depression, she took her boyfriend's gun in the middle of the night, drove to the local high school, cut both of her wrists and called 911.

The 27-year-old St. George resident said she had a gun and wanted to kill herself. She pleaded for help.

Leaving the gun inside the vehicle, she stood outside, waiting for the RCMP to arrive. Blood dripped down her forearms as she raised her hands in the air in front of the officers who responded with their guns drawn.

"She didn't threaten to hurt anyone. She just said, 'I need help,'" her mother, Patty Borthwick, said of the incident, which happened Sept. 16.

"That's what she had to do to get help. … This is how desperate the situation is in this province."

Hooper was eventually taken to the Saint John Regional Hospital, where she spent a couple of days in the psychiatric unit before being released.

Hillary Hooper was 27 when she died by suicide in December. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

"Treat 'em and street 'em," she said her daughter was fond of saying.

Hooper's wrists hadn't even fully healed before she tried to hurt herself again. Blood soaked through her bandages as the RCMP tried to restrain her in her St. George home after she threatened to cut herself with a knife. She was sent back to the psychiatric unit for about a week that time, said Borthwick.

She was discharged with an appointment with a psychiatrist in six months, but Borthwick said a kind nurse recognized her daughter needed help sooner than that and took it upon herself to make an appointment with a mental health counsellor.

That appointment was on Nov. 13 in Saint John.

The counsellor told Hooper to go home, raise chickens, and plant a garden — it would be good for her mental health.

Hooper called her mother right after the appointment, sobbing. She felt nobody cared whether she lived or died.

Borthwick believes that's when her daughter gave up on the system.

Patty Borthwick with her daughter, Hillary Hooper, on the Borthwicks' pontoon boat. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Hooper drove straight to the Saint John hospital, where she tried to take her own life again. She wrote a note that said to let her die and to donate her organs.

When her physical condition stabilized, she was moved to 4D North, the hospital's secure, psychiatric wing.

Borthwick thought her daughter would be safe there.

"She was safe. She's looked after. There's no way she can harm herself there," Borthwick assured herself at the time.

"There's no pills, no knives, no guns, and no doors lock."

Nineteen days later, Hooper hanged herself in her room.

She was put on life support, but the damage was too great. On Dec. 9 at 10:52 a.m., she was disconnected from the machines. She died 10 minutes later.

14 Wednesdays

Borthwick wants to know how it could have happened. How could a person with a history of attempting suicide manage to succeed while in a psychiatric unit?

The unit is secure, with visitors having to be buzzed in. Doors don't lock — not even the public washrooms, says Borthwick — and doors to patient rooms are equipped with windows, so that staff can easily check on the well-being of those inside.

"Why was nobody minding the patients? How could this have happened?"

The Horizon Health Network said all in-patient suicides are "subjected to an internal review in accordance with Sections 3 and 4 of the provincial Health Quality and Patient Safety Act," said Jean Daigle, vice-president, community.

"Horizon's clinical standards states that patients and clients are assessed and monitored for risk of suicide recognizing the dynamic nature of suicidality," he said by email on Monday afternoon. "This process is not intended to predict suicide but to recognize the need for intervention when a patient is in a heightened state of risk."

Hillary Hooper in her graduation photo, class of 2011 at Fundy High School. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Borthwick said it has taken her until now to be strong enough to fight for answers — a span of time she measures in Wednesdays, since Hooper hanged herself on a Wednesday and died one Wednesday later.

It's been 14 Wednesdays without her daughter.

It took 11 Wednesdays to be strong enough to write a letter to Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, looking for answers. So far, she's only received a response to acknowledge receipt of the letter.

In a response to CBC, the communications director, Bruce Macfarlane, said the minister "will respond in due course."

Lexi Daken

Borthwick said it took reading about the death of Lexi Daken to motivate her to write the letter to Shephard.

She said her daughter was let down by the system in the same way Lexi was let down.

The 16-year-old Maugerville girl was taken to the emergency department in Fredericton on Feb. 18 and sat for eight hours without ever receiving any mental health help.

The Grade 10 student at Leo Hayes High School had attempted suicide last fall and was experiencing depression. Her school guidance counsellor recognized that she needed help and took her to the hospital and sat with her for the entire time before they left without help — only a referral.

No one ever called the family about the referral, and Lexi died by suicide less than a week later.

Patty Borthwick with her daughter, Hillary Hooper, and Blue last autumn in the blueberry fields of Charlotte County. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

"I know our system is overloaded," said Borthwick, "but when someone is brave enough to come in and say, 'I'm thinking of ending my life right now,' giving them a card for next week, tomorrow or the next day is no good.

"If they're brave enough to walk in through those hospital doors, and let you know they're suffering with mental illness, put them in a bed."

And take care of them "'till they're off the ledge. Because when they're on the ledge, you sending them back home, of course they're going to jump."

Borthwick said she would never claim that her daughter did not receive mental health care. Her issue is with the quality of care. She said if Hooper had received the kind of treatment she needed, she wouldn't have repeatedly tried to end her life.

Letter to the health minister

In her letter to Shephard, written the day after Lexi died, Borthwick said the system failed her daughter.

"She was in a locked facility, protected, watched over. I wasn't allowed in. I wasn't allowed to protect her. Your system was 'protecting' her,'" Borthwick wrote.

"You cannot bring my daughter back. You cannot bring any suicide patient back. What you can do is pay more attention to those hurting with mental health issues. I know you've recently 'talked the talk' about some new five-year plan for mental health. I am sorry, I know it'll all be a huge waste of time and talk.

Hillary Hooper with her brother, Dakin Hooper, and mom, Patty Borthwick, at the Borthwick's Lake Utopia home. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

"For once, why don't the political parties stop 'talking the talk' and 'walk the walk.' I invite you, Honourable Shephard, to walk in my shoes for a few days. Walk the walk of a mother who had to bury her 27-year-old daughter because the system failed her. Time and time and time again."

Borthwick also invited Shephard to consult with "the parents of dead children from suicide." She said they can help reveal where the system has failed.

"We can tell you what is needed so no other parent buries their child before them."

Borthwick told the minister that she did not expect to receive an answer.

"I would expect the same response and service that my daughter Hillary received from your Department of Health. Nothing. Zilch. Zero."

'Funny, funny, funny'

Hillary Virginia Ruth Hooper was born on April 27, 1993. She has an older brother Dakin Hooper, who is now 29. She spent her early years in Beaver Harbour before moving to Lake Utopia in 2008.

Her parents separated when she was young.

Borthwick said her daughter's mental health trouble first surfaced as an eating disorder in Grade 10. While that eventually passed, depression would continue to plague her.

Hillary Hooper loved sunflowers and grew her own. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

She didn't have addictions, she didn't have money problems. She was in a stable relationship and had a dog that she adored.

"She was just sad," said Borthwick.

After high school, she worked out west as a heavy-equipment operator for a few years before returning home to Charlotte County.

While those closest to her knew of the darkness that would often envelope her, no one else would have guessed that she was haunted by depression.

"Everybody would tell you — sweet, funny, funny, funny. Crazy. Life of the party. She just was so much fun that you would never think that. … You'd never get anyone that wouldn't say that she wasn't the happiest, funniest girl around."

When things got bad, though, they got really bad. For days at a time, Hooper would hardly be able to drag herself out of bed.

Hillary Hooper and her dog Blue, a border collie/Bernese Mountain dog mix. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

She tried to get professional help, but nothing seemed to work. She saw psychiatrists, she tried medication, but she couldn't shake the depression.

Toward the end of last November, while in 4D North, things seemed to be looking up, said Borthwick.

Hooper had a new psychiatrist, whom she liked. He changed her medication and the results seemed to give her hope.

Borthwick said the psychiatrist even called Hooper his "success story." He told the family that suicidal patients rarely talk about the future because they don't think they've got any future. But Hooper was talking about the future in a positive way.

In the hours and minutes before she hanged herself, she and her boyfriend were making plans to cut down their own Christmas tree together when she got out.

Hillary Hooper's mom says she was so much fun, only those closest to her had any inkling of the pain she was in. (Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Borthwick spoke to her daughter on the phone until 9:03 p.m. on Dec. 2 and texted her after that. Things seemed positive — right up to the last text with her boyfriend at 10:34.

"That's why it's so hard to take when we got the call," said Borthwick. "Because it was the happiest she sounded in a long time, not just to me, to the psychiatrist, to her boyfriend, and then all of a sudden someone finds her hanging in a hospital. I just don't get it. I don't get it."

From the reports that she received from the nurses, Hooper must have put her phone down around 10:34 and set to work on ending her life.

She was discovered about half an hour later.

Borthwick was called just before midnight.

After a few days on life-support, Borthwick said it became clear that her daughter would not recover.

Hooper was a heavy equipment operator with a 'wicked sense of humour' and a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush, according to her mother. This earned Hooper the nickname Ricky from the Trailer Park Boys during her training course.(Submitted by Patty Borthwick)

Vanilla bean goodbye

After the decision was made to remove life-support, the nurses asked Borthwick what Hooper's favourite scent was.

When Borthwick arrived on Dec. 9 to say goodbye, she was moved to tears by the efforts of the nurses. They had braided Hooper's long, blond hair and rubbed vanilla-scented body cream into her skin.

Borthwick was allowed to crawl onto the hospital bed and cuddle with her daughter before the machines were disconnected. Ten minutes later, she was gone.

There has been no funeral.

Borthwick said COVID-19 will not dictate her daughter's final goodbye. The family plans to wait as long as it takes to properly celebrate Hooper "and her wicked sense of humour."

IF YOU NEED HELP:

CHIMO hotline: 1-800-667-5005 / http://www.chimohelpline.ca

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566

About the Author

Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

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    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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