A Nisga’a woman says racist mistreatment during childbirth by a nurse at a northern B.C. hospital contributed to her newborn son suffering brain injuries.
Kristy White filed a complaint with Northern Health immediately after her experience at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. in Prince George, during which she alleges a nurse made racist remarks and refused to give her medication that would have induced labour, against the doctor’s orders.
White’s son Wesley suffers from brain bleeds and is developmentally delayed in his mobility and communication, according to a neurologist report provided to CBC. Wesley, who recently celebrated his first birthday, has been in intense physical and occupational therapy since October 2020 and requires a support chair to sit up.
White has been told that her son’s condition was likely due to a vacuum-assisted delivery, which might not have been necessary but for the nurse’s actions.
In their email response to White, Northern Health acknowledged that a disagreement took place between a doctor and the nurse and that “the team did not function effectively.” It concluded the nurse’s actions were not the result of racism, but were rather motivated by concern for the safety of White and her baby.
White has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and the B.C. College of Nurses, and also plans to file a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital.
She said she is speaking up because she doesn’t want other parents to go through what she did.
“I had kept quiet for a long time because it was too fresh. It hurts,” White said. “I hope that this gives other people an opportunity to speak out.”
Disagreements between nurse, doctor
White and her husband, Warren, are from Greenville, a Nisga’a village also called Laxgalts’ap, located in far northwestern B.C. They travelled more than 600 kilometres to the University Hospital of Northern B.C. to deliver their baby on June 17, 2020, after White’s doctor felt she should give birth in a well-equipped hospital.
Because her baby kept moving to a transverse position — sideways in the uterus rather than in a head-down position ready for birth — White said her doctor decided to induce birth with the hormone oxytocin once the baby moved into a more favourable position. White’s dose was to be increased every half hour until she was ready to give birth.
Early in the morning on June 18, there was a nursing shift change. White said she noticed immediately that the new nurse did not like her. According to White, the nurse refused to increase the dose of oxytocin throughout the day, frequently argued with the doctor and demanded the doctor leave the room on several occasions.
White alleges that the nurse referred to her and her husband as Indians and made racist remarks about the way they harvest and preserve food.
She said the nurse blocked the door to her room to prevent White’s husband from leaving. Eventually, the nurse’s back was turned and White said her husband ran out the door to get the doctor.
“The doctor had to stand over the nurse in the delivery room and tell her to increase the medication and she still wouldn’t increase it,” White said.
She said the nurse eventually administered the drug and White was then ready to give birth within minutes.
‘I’ve never been so scared in my life’
But after being in labour for more than 24 hours, White was having chest pains and was too exhausted to give birth. She requested a C-section.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she said.
The doctors decided that due to a number of factors, a C-section would be too risky and proceeded with a vacuum-assisted delivery.
White gave birth at 3:30 p.m. on June 18.
A few weeks after the birth, she began to notice signs that Wesley was developmentally delayed, she said.
Following an MRI in May 2021, Wesley’s neurologist told White that her son had brain bleeds that were likely due to the vacuum-assisted delivery.
The Nisga’a Government has released a statement in support of White.
In a statement provided to CBC, Northern Health said, “There was a quality of care complaint that was investigated when concerns were raised in June 2020, and a response was provided to the complainant.”
Racism in health-care system
B.C.-based Indigenous doula Olivia Louie said that she has experienced similar situations in health care. She said many of her clients have been subjected to racism that has resulted in trauma and sometimes physical injury.
Louie said she has also seen a pattern of a lack of accountability or acknowledgement in the health-care system.
“The perpetrators of racism shouldn’t be the ones determining whether or not a racist event occurred,” said Louie.
Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said that Indigenous-specific racism is a problem across Canada and that situations like White’s can cause Indigenous women and girls to avoid seeking medical help.
The 2020 report In Plain Sight, the result of an independent review by former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, found that Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately affected by racism in B.C.’s health-care system.
“We know it exists, and now people are starting to speak out,” said Warren. “They’re not going to be silent anymore.”