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Family sues Winnipeg care home operators after woman strangled by privacy curtain on her birthday

Two nurses are being investigated by Winnipeg police and a family is suing two private care-home operators after a 63-year-old woman with dementia wrapped herself in a curtain and suffocated at Beacon Hill Lodge last year.

Irene Fontaine died alone in a room, trapped in a privacy curtain at the long-term care home where she lived, on Jan. 11, 2023 — her 63rd birthday.

She had been led to the unoccupied semi-private room by two nurses about an hour before she was found strangled in the curtain, Winnipeg police detectives allege in a court document.

They are investigating the two nurses who were working on the floor where Fontaine lived, alleging criminal negligence, police say in the court document — known as an order to obtain — which laid out their case as they sought access to care home records.

The family’s lawsuit — filed in Manitoba Court of King’s Bench on March 13 — says Fontaine required supervision and alleges the care home companies Revera and Extendicare were negligent in providing care for her.

The family is suing the care home operators for $110,000, funeral costs, interest and court costs, as well as any other damages the court finds.

The claims in the lawsuit have not been tested in court.

Extendicare, which bought Revera’s care home business last year and now operates the Beacon Hill Lodge, said in an email that Fontaine’s death “predates Extendicare’s management responsibility of the home.” 

Revera did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Staff falsified records, police allege

On the morning Fontaine died, two nurses took the diminutive woman to a room with a faulty door and closed her in the room, leaving her there for about 50 minutes, unsupervised and likely unable to open the door, police allege in the order to obtain.

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While Fontaine’s medical chart said staff had seen her walking around 15 minutes before she was found dead, and her blood pressure was taken 10 minutes before the discovery, video footage from the care home suggests otherwise, according to police.

“I believe that staff of Beacon Hill Lodge care home … did falsify records of Ms. Fontaine to cover up their inaction of care,” a Winnipeg police constable with the major crimes unit says in the court document.

Staff at Beacon Hill Lodge told Winnipeg police that Fontaine lived on the fifth floor of the care home — a unit for people with mental health issues who are unable to care for themselves, according to a court document. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Fontaine lived on the fifth floor of Beacon Hill Lodge — a unit for people with mental health issues who are unable to care for themselves, staff told police.

Fontaine had been at the downtown Winnipeg care home for four years and lived in Room 502, the farthest from the nurses’ station in the south hallway, but was found in Room 522 — the farthest in the north hallway, police said.

She was described as five feet tall, 80 to 90 pounds, very thin and frail.

Her common-law husband told police she frequently played with curtains and liked to wrap herself up in them, although police said it’s not known if staff at the care home knew that.

Carried birthday balloon

Another nurse, who is not accused in the case, told police that Fontaine was a “walker” whose advanced dementia made her unable to sit still, to the point where staff often had to feed her while walking because she couldn’t sit for meals.

Major crimes investigators viewed video surveillance from the fifth floor and said the morning she died, Fontaine walked the halls and dining area “while carrying a balloon as it is her birthday,” the information to obtain says.

At 10:24 a.m., she tried to take a binder from the nursing station but was stopped by a staff member, the court document says. Just 15 minutes later, after walking in and out of the dining area several times, she was seen leaving with a clipboard.

At 10:44 a.m., a staff member seated her in a chair near the nurses’ station, where she sat for about a minute before getting up and walking out of camera range.

She appeared in the video again as staff were getting ready to serve lunch, and at 10:54 a.m., she took another resident’s walker.

A nurse took the walker away from her, took her by the hand and spoke to her. Fontaine then continued to wander.

Two minutes later, the nurse took her hand and started to walk down the north hallway with her. The nurse spoke to another nurse and pointed down the hallway.

The two nurses then walked Fontaine to Room 522 and entered with her at 10:57 a.m., police say in the court document. The two nurses left the room about 25 seconds later and the second nurse “is seen forcefully closing the door with two hands,” the police description of the video says.

“The door to the room had a broken hinge and therefore required some strength to lift and pull it open, as well as to push it shut,” investigators said in the court document.

In the video, no one went back to Room 522 until a third nurse, who was distributing lunch, started walking around with a tray of food, going in and out of rooms. That nurse told police she was looking for Fontaine so she could give her lunch.

At 11:50 a.m., the video shows that nurse going into Room 522, appearing to use her shoulder to open the door, police say in the court document.

That nurse found Fontaine with a privacy curtain wrapped around her neck and immediately sent out a code blue — an alert that calls all nurses to the floor where an incident is happening — but Fontaine was dead, the court document says.

Winnipeg police are still investigating the case, a police service spokesperson said.

“The family is currently not prepared to speak with the media,” lawyer Martin Pollock said on their behalf.

Extendicare said the accused nurses don’t work at Beacon Hill Lodge anymore.

“We can confirm the two individuals under police investigation do not work at and have never been employed at Extendicare,” a spokesperson said in the email.

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