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Cape Breton Post: Family launches website after mother dies within hour of leaving ER

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Katherine and Dennis Snow sit in the living room of their Donkin home on Jan. 12. They are holding the urn containing Charlene Snow's ashes, Dennis' mother, who died an hour after leaving Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department on Dec. 30. NICOLE SULLIVAN/CAPE BRETON POST DONKIN — Charlene Snow's family feels robbed. Robbed by Nova Scotia's health-care crisis. Robbed by a health-care system that is failing people like Charlene who go to Nova Scotia Health emergency departments with serious illnesses, not visible to the naked eye, who leave unseen because wait times are exceptionally long. Robbed because the 67-year-old Donkin woman went to Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department on Dec. 30 and died within an hour of leaving. "My mother went to the place you are supposed to go to to get help and she never got it," said Dennis Snow. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy." Since September, Charlene hadn't been feeling well. Over Christmas, her symptoms worsened. The glue of the family, Charlene pushed through Christmas Eve but wasn't able to do so for the rest of the holiday. By Dec. 30, Charlene's flu-like symptoms worsened and included a sore jaw. She knew she needed to seek medical treatment at the only open emergency department in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.

She arrived at Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department at 1 p.m. and was triaged. Throughout her seven hours of waiting to be seen by a doctor, Charlene texted her family updates, telling them about the many sick babies waiting in the emergency department.

At 8 p.m., too uncomfortable to wait and worried about the sick babies (particularly twins she texted daughter-in-law Katherine Snow about) Charlene asked the triage nurse to honestly tell her when she would be seen. "She hoped one less person would get those twins one step closer to being seen and treated," said Katherine, Dennis' wife.

The nurse said possibly the next morning and Charlene called her husband to pick her up; her plan was to go to the urgent care clinic in North Sydney the next day.

Within an hour of leaving the hospital, Charlene's heart stopped. She had hemopericardium, a cardiovascular condition where fluid builds up around the heart. It was the cause of her death. Now that the funeral is over and the sadness has turned to anger, the family is determined to do what they can to prevent another patient from being failed and another family from going through what they are.

They have launched a website to publish Charlene's story, and the stories of other patients failed by Nova Scotia's health-care system. A website the higher-ups in government, who are in charge of hospital policies and procedures, can't ignore. "I really want to make it clear, and the family wants it to be clear as well, that this is in no way a slight toward health-care workers at all," said Katherine. "We are suffering under this system and they are working in it. That just makes for a terrible combination."

Charlene Snow, 67, went to Cape Breton Regional Hospital emergency department at 1 p.m. on Dec. 30 and left seven hours later after being told she most likely wouldn't be seen until the next morning. NICOLE SULLIVAN/CAPE BRETON POST - Nicole Sullivan


On Wednesday, Katherine posted Charlene's story to her Facebook page. Although they knew there would be some response, both she and Dennis are "blown away" by how many messages and emails they've received.

By publication time, Katherine's post had 342 comments and was shared more than 1,700 times. Most of the correspondence has been from people in Cape Breton, however, there have been some from people living in other parts of the province.

The response made Katherine realize Charlene's story is only the tip of the iceberg. She decided more needed to be done. "I realized last night that this is so much bigger than Charlene and Charlene's death," said Katherine.

With the help of longtime friend Stephen Tobin, a communications expert, they created the website

"I really want this to be a place where you can come and get a full picture of what we're dealing with, with health care. And particularly emergency health care because that's what happened with Charlene," Katherine took a deep breath then added. "I still can't believe I'm talking about it. It's crazy."

Launched on Thursday, the website currently has Charlene's story on it and plans are to add other people's stories as well as news updates in the coming days. There is a place to add your name to the mailing list and the email to send a story about Nova Scotia health care is

Katherine plans to publicize the website so much that government officials see it in the hopes that Charlene's death will be a catalyst for positive changes in Nova Scotia's health-care system.

"I want it to be a catalyst for change," she said. "Maybe there are similar stories that will be a catalyst for change in policy for once. Or a procedural change that will make things better for people who are sitting in the ER (emergency room) for hours."

While taking action like this is helping Katherine with her grief, she still has anger over the loss of her mother-in-law.

"I'm really angry. I'm angry for my (three-year-old) daughter and I'm angry for her 17-year-old grandson who is graduating this year. He was raised by her and she was his biggest supporter," Katherine said, sitting at the dining room table of her Donkin home Thursday morning. "Three-hundred and fifty people came to the (Glace Bay Miners Forum) the other day for her service. That should tell you what kind of a person we lost."

Nora Snow, 3, sits at the dining room table at her Donkin home in front of a photo of her grandmother Charlene Snow, who she loved shopping with. Pen in hand, Nora plans on "doing work for Nan, too" like her mother Katherine Snow who has started a website to publish stories about Nova Scotia's healthcare system failing patients like Charlene. NICOLE SULLIVAN/CAPE BRETON POST - Nicole Sullivan DETERMINED FOR CHANGE

An interview request with Nova Scotia Health could not be fulfilled by publication time. Nor was a written statement received before the Cape Breton Post's print publication deadlines.

Charlene's family has started the complaints process and filed a request to have her medical records released.

Dennis and Katherine's home is still filled with all the photos of Charlene's life, which show the loving grandmother and great-grandmother's beaming smile, which were put up for the reception after the funeral.

The photos remind the family of the importance of their fight for changes in health care in Nova Scotia. A fight they plan to pursue for as long as it takes to see change come to fruition. Katherine said the actions she's taken and the response they're receiving make her "feel good." "It makes me feel like we've accomplished something for her already."

A photo of Charlene Snow giving her granddaughter Nora Snow a kiss which is in the front hall of Nora's home in Donkin. NICOLE SULLIVAN/CAPE BRETON POST - Nicole Sullivan

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