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Health bosses refuse to tell grieving mom why her son died

The Department of Health has apologised to grieving mother Lynn Spencer for taking more than a year to complete a postmortem drug test on her late son.

But it has failed to explain why the Government Lab has taken so long to analyse blood, urine and tissue samples taken from 25-year-old Christopher Spencer, a heroin addict who died on October 27 last year.

And yesterday a Department spokeswoman said it would not share the results with her, even though they have now been passed to the pathologist who conducted the autopsy.

Ms Spencer received a telephone call last week from David Kendell, acting director of the Department of Health, following inquiries from The Royal Gazette.

She said he apologised for the delay and told her the samples from her son had been sent overseas for testing and that there was a problem with the equipment at the Government Lab.

Mr Kendell later told her in an e-mail: “Further to our phone conversation, I wanted to reiterate my apology for the delay in toxicology results.

“I am hopeful that we will be able to provide you with the necessary closure and I am sorry that it has taken a year to complete this matter. Please contact me again if your concerns are not fully addressed.”

Mr Kendell asked toxicologist Desiree Spriggs to get in touch with Ms Spencer, which she did. Ms Spencer said Dr Spriggs gave conflicting information, denying the sample was sent overseas or that there was a problem with the equipment.

Neither Mr Kendell nor Dr Spriggs could tell the bereaved mother-of-two when a toxicology report on her son would be completed.

Without the report, police say they are unable to close their investigation into Mr Spencer's death or pass a file to the Coroner, who decides whether to conduct an inquest.

After repeated requests for comment, a Department of Health spokeswoman told this newspaper yesterday: “The Central Government Lab was relocated when the old hospital building was torn down.

“The move of the Lab resulted in extended difficulties with the facility and the equipment used to carry out a wide range of analyses. Toxicology analysis can take from two to six months, but can take longer depending on the circumstances.

“In the case of Mrs Spencer's son, no details on the analysis will be released. The file on the toxicology results has been forwarded to the pathologist, but families are not provided with details of the toxicology results. It is our understanding that the Coroner determines what information is provided to the family.”

Ms Spencer marked the one-year anniversary of her son's death on Sunday, still entirely in the dark about how he died.

Mr Kendell had told her he would ask pathologist Marva Phillips Williams, who carried out the autopsy, to call her before the end of last week to answer questions but the call never came.

She wants a public inquest to take place to enable her to ask questions of police officers and medics, but she has been given no indication by coroner's officer Sergeant Travis Powell if that will happen.

Ms Spencer, who is unable to get a death certificate for her son until the Coroner makes his decision, said she was bitterly disappointed to have been given no clear information on why the postmortem drug testing was taking so long.

And she questioned how many other bereaved families were silently waiting for answers on the deaths of their loved ones, possibly not even aware that they had the option of a public inquest.

As this newspaper reported on Monday, Senior Coroner Archibald Warner holds very few inquests into sudden deaths, with many, including those involving drug overdoses, drownings, road traffic collisions and workplace accidents, being dealt with instead by way of a “file review”.

Between 2008 and 2012 there were 61 road fatalities and not a single public inquest has been held into any of them.

Shadow Attorney General Kim Wilson said yesterday there should be more public hearings into unexpected deaths.

“Certainly, in many cases if we were able to identify the cause of death, then we can take steps to make sure it's prevented,” said the Opposition MP. “I think, in that regard, it's important to look at amending the Coroner's Act.

“People always think that it's about who is responsible [for the death]. It is not. It is to find the cause of death. If we know the cause of death — be it because this road is curved at the wrong angle or whatever — then we can address it. It certainly can't be a bad thing.”

Ms Wilson said when she was Attorney General she began looking into the issue of inquests after discovering there were delays in producing toxicology reports from the Lab.

She said the law needed amending to allow families to obtain interim death certificates in such cases, as is possible in other jurisdictions.

“That's what we were hoping to do,” Ms Wilson said. “I remember looking it and I'm sorry we didn't get the chance to do it.

“I do recall that the toxicology reports were being sent overseas. Because of that, my bigger concern was that, in addition to the families not knowing if there was going to be an inquest, they could not get a death certificate. You can't probate an estate in the absence of a death certificate.”

Attorney General Mark Pettingill has not responded to questions about whether the Coroner's Act needs amending or whether he wants to see more public inquests.

This newspaper asked Mr Warner last week if an inquest would be held into Mr Spencer's death and ten other sudden deaths in recent years.

We also asked him how many deaths had been reported to him and how many inquests held in recent years and asked him to comment on whether more public inquests should take place.

After a further request yesterday, he replied by e-mail to say he'd asked his staff to share the statistics, noting: “I do not personally respond to these out of court judicial requests from the press!” The statistics were not provided by press time.

Mr Warner added: “I am aware of your latest article on the subject. I am not interested in contributing any comments.”

In happier times: Lynn Spencer with son Chris.
<p>Support group for families</p>

Bermuda is to get what could be its first support group for families who have lost a loved one to substance abuse.

Lynn Spencer, whose 25-year-old son Christopher died in October last year after battling to beat his heroin addiction, is to launch a chapter of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing) on the Island.

GRASP is an American organisation, with chapters in many US states, which was formed to help provide help, compassion and understanding to families who have suffered the death of a loved one through drug use.

Ms Spencer said: “I found out about it on the internet when I was looking up help with grief. They have a Facebook community that you join and it’s very private. You have to be accepted and all that. You have to have had a spouse or family member that has passed from a substance addiction.

“From there, I just realised there’s really no help here. Bermuda doesn’t have anything like this. I was searching for help. I decided this might be something that we need here.”

Ms Spencer has had the go-ahead from GRASP to form a chapter here and the offer of a meeting place from drug treatment organisation Caron Bermuda.

Now she wants to hear from anyone interested in joining.

“It’s to share, to have people that you can relate to, that have been through the trauma of living with a drug addict and losing the person,” she said.

She added that losing a relative because of drugs was a “different kind of death.

“There’s a lot of stigma attached to it and a lot of guilt and a lot of ‘what ifs’.

“It’s just about learning that there is nothing that you could actually do about it. It was their path and their choice.”

Anyone interested in the group should e-mail sonja_lynn@hotmail.com.

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Published October 30, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated October 30, 2013 at 10:31 am)

Health bosses refuse to tell grieving mom why her son died

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