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Shelter head blames young worker's death on gaps in Nanaimo health care

Sophia, 23, died of sepsis after likely contracting an infection from her workplace
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Sophia, whose family declined to have her last name published, worked at Nanaimo Unitarian homeless shelter from September 2022 until last summer, when she was advised to take medical leave. COURTESY MELONIE FAIRCHILD

The death of a young shelter worker in Nanaimo is being blamed on an easily treated infection that she likely ­contracted from clients, but that went undiagnosed because of a lack of medical care in Nanaimo.

Sophia, 23 — her family did not want her last name revealed — was a graduate of Vancouver Island University’s community mental health worker ­program and had been working at ­Nanaimo Unitarian Shelter.

Paul Manly, the shelter’s executive director, called her a “bright rising star.”

But when she fell ill last ­summer, losing weight and hair, she struggled to get medical care, and was then misdiagnosed with everything from an eating disorder to hemorrhoids.

When she was finally ­properly diagnosed, it was too late.

On Nov. 24, Sophia was ­transported to hospital in ­Vancouver with sepsis and died days later.

“I truly hope changes are made so no parent/family has to live what I’ve been through,” mother Melonie Fairchild said in a social media post thanking Manly for advocating for her family.

Manly said there is one Urgent and Primary Care Clinic to serve more than 20,000 people who don’t have a family doctor in Nanaimo, and the aging Nanaimo Regional General Hospital is often ­overcapacity.

Sophia worked at the home­less shelter from ­September 2022 until last ­summer, when she was advised by Manly to take medical leave.

The already petite woman was drained of energy and had noticeably lost weight, he said.

She didn’t have a family ­doctor and struggled to get a diagnosis for her rapidly ­declining health.

Manly said sick and weak patients going to the Urgent and Primary Care Clinic must line up at 5 or 6 a.m. in hopes of seeing a doctor when it opens at 8 a.m., which is tough on people.

“I’ve been there and done that.”

When Sophia got ­appointments at the Youth ­Wellness Centre at the ­Nanaimo Leisure Centre — in part to get a ­clinician’s note for her extended heath benefits — she was wrongly diagnosed with an eating disorder, even though she strongly rejected that as the cause of her illness.

In October, Sophia’s mother, who had previously lost a son to an epilepsy-related illness while living in a rural area near Prince George, took her ­daughter to Nanaimo Regional General ­Hospital’s emergency ­department, where Sophia was diagnosed as having hemorrhoids and given a prescription.

“Sophia trusted the professionals and assumed they knew what they were doing,” said Manly.

A month later, on Nov. 16, Sophia was taken back to the hospital. This time, anemic and requiring a blood transfusion, she was admitted.

Manly said Sophia had a compromised immune system — something that could have been figured out with blood tests. “They figured it out only the second time she went to the emergency ward,” he said. “She had a transfusion and they did blood work and as soon as they did that, they figured out what was going on.”

On Nov. 24, according to her mother, Sophia was diagnosed with an internal infection that her immune system wasn’t able to fight. “Both of those things were completely detectable and preventable,” said Manly. “Her death was preventable.”

Sophia was transported to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver but it was too late — “sepsis had taken hold and she died three days later,” Manly said

The Nanaimo councillor and former Green MP for Nanaimo-Ladysmith believes Sophia contracted the infection at work.

Working at a homeless shelter exposes people to a range of infections and pathogens that members of the homeless population are struggling with, he said — from colds and flus to COVID, infections and open wounds.

Manly said the shelter tries to leave two emergency beds free for unhoused patients discharged from hospital but it’s not an appropriate environment for people with serious health challenges. “Homeless shelters should not be a dumping ground for homeless patients but we are,” he said.

Island Health confirmed it has received a complaint from Sophia’s mother but said in a statement it can’t comment on a patient’s care, citing privacy reasons.

The health authority said Sophia had multiple patient visits, both in hospital and community, about her health issues, adding Island Health’s Patient Care Quality Office is in contact with her family and will ensure family members have their questions answered.

“This is a tragic loss of a young person who, by all accounts, was dedicated to helping those in their community.”

Colleagues were hit hard by her death, said Manly.

Sophia was described as bright, compassionate and dedicated to her work at the shelter.

Numerous posts on social media memorialized her as someone who “truly cared” about people and their struggles. She was described as sweet, intelligent, open-hearted, quirky, funny, a joy to be around and wise beyond her years.

One colleague called her “Tinkerbell” for drawing ­softness from the hardest ­individuals.

Joe Sippel, a mental-health specialist who served as Sophia’s instructor at Nanaimo Serenity Lodge during her practicum, called her a “shining example of the new generation entering the field.”

Niki Wood, Sophia’s aunt, said while it wasn’t an easy decision to go public, her niece would have supported advocating for improved health-care delivery.

“Soph would have wanted her story to be used as a platform for change,” wrote Wood. “She was dedicated to helping our most vulnerable citizens in her life and would have wanted her story used to advocate for the state of our health-care system in her death.

“We as a family feel it’s an important situation to bring to light so we the people can push our politicians who work for us to change what needs to change.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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