What happened in that hotel room?

January 19, 2011

When is a dead person not a dead person?

Apparently, that can be the case when they’re part of a crime scene investigated by the Guelph Police Service. I’m talking, of course, about this strange story that’s been unfolding in the newspaper over the past few days.

Some background. When the police were called to a local Gordon Street hotel last week, they found a woman who appeared to be dead. Hotel staff had stumbled on the guest inside her room. Later, police said she had self-inflicted wounds on her arms that looked very serious.

Police decided she was dead and locked down the area. Paramedics and firefighters who arrived at the hotel to help her weren’t let into the room because police believed they had a crime scene on their hands that they needed to protect.

What happened next would surprise even Mark Twain, and he knew a thing or two about reports of deaths being greatly exaggerated.

While being videotaped by a forensics officer, the woman twitched. Two hours after police first arrived, paramedics were called back and permitted to attend to the 50-year-old woman. She was rushed to hospital, treated for her physical injuries and later discharged from its care.

It was no medical miracle. This was not a back-from-the-dead circumstance. The woman was not dead. Never was.

Police Chief Rob Davis, to his credit, says something went wrong in his officers’ handling of this call. Police are not supposed to declare people dead – that’s up to the coroner or other medical officials, unless the circumstances are unequivocal.

Davis indicated he’s unsure what led his officers to declare her dead. It’s concerning that the officers’ top priority seemed to be protecting what they thought was a crime scene, above all else.

Davis has launched an internal investigation and says he wants answers. I think this woman, and her family, deserve them, too. Let’s hope those answers are made public, as well.

Patients come back to life all the time on the operating table and in hospital beds. Being buried alive was once such a common fear a whole industry thrived in North America selling coffins with escape hatches and alarm bells. Even George Washington was so afraid of premature burial he made his own servants promise they would wait 12 days after his death to bury him.

But this shouldn’t have happened in this instance. Not when paramedics were on hand and ready to do their job.

There seems no doubt the woman appeared to be dead. But confirming that is something you have to be sure you’re getting right.  It’s kind of important.

The No. 1 priority for police should be protecting people. That means there are cases when police work must take a back seat to making sure citizens have access to medical help.

How would this story be different if the woman was tended to immediately? What if she had died because of the delay in getting medical help? Let’s hope the chief is able to explain some of those questions.

In the meantime, I’m left hoping that if I ever, heaven forbid, collapse unconscious on the streets of Guelph, the paramedics get to me first.

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