Douglas Davis Harris
On April 18, 1974, Douglas Davis Harris, a twenty-three-year-old man, described as suffering from “mental retardation,” (which was a consequence of an accident that caused damage to his brain when he was five), was checked into the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital by the police. He had been missing from his North York home, which he shared with his mother, Rosemary Dalton, since April 17, 1974, at approximately 11:00 am or 12:00 pm.
That day, Douglas headed to New Toronto, the neighbourhood of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, where he had previously been a patient. He went to the Capitol Restaurant, located at 2811 Lakeshore Boulevard West, sometime around 11:00 am. He ordered a meal for which he was unable to pay. The waitress became alarmed when she noticed that Douglas put a table knife into his pocket. She quickly notified the owner of the restaurant and they called the police, while Douglas was peacefully sitting at the table, waiting for their arrival.
Shortly, two police officers arrived from the twenty-first division: John Dunning and Robert Hobbs. They asked Douglas why he had a knife in his pocket. He replied that he wanted to cut someone’s throat, but when the officers asked whom, he stated that he did not know. The officers proceeded to ask more questions and together they gathered that in the past, Douglas had been once a patient at Lakeshore. Together they decided to take him there. In their report, they noted that Douglas was co-operative and did not show any signs of resistance.
Douglas’s Arrest and Re-Admission to Lakeshore
Upon the admission to the hospital he was directed to the crisis ward. Despite this fact, the police and the hospital failed to notify his mother about his whereabouts. She was unware of his admission until the next day. Meanwhile, Douglas was examined by a psychiatrist, who eventually decided not to prescribe any treatment due to the fact that the past medical records of the patients could not be made available immediately. As a result, the doctors decided to prescribe a sedative, and order the nurse on duty to administer further doses if they were needed.
During the following morning at breakfast, on April 20th, Douglas threatened the nurse, Janet Lynn Bell, and other patients, with a butter knife. As Bell later explained at the hearing, she felt that the patient was merely seeking attention from others and that he did not intend to harm anybody. In order to calm him down, he was given the sedative prescribed the night before, and he confessed that he wanted to die. As The Advertiser, a local newspaper, reported, he was given a “special treatment” in order to supposedly prevent a possible suicide attempt. The sedative drug had a profound and effective influence on Douglas, as he was sedated until the following day on April 21st.
At 5:00 pm on that day, Nurse Bell came to the ward where Douglas was staying. From her observation, she concluded that his pulse was normal and feeling that he needed sleep, she decided not to wake him up for the supper. Nurse Bell came back three hours later, at 8:00 pm. She checked Dougla’s pulse again and noted that it was normal. She also noticed that he turned from his side to his back. There was no blood or other signs of any injury. At 11:15 pm, Nurse Bell finished her shift. On the following day, she learned that the patient died during the night due to injuries to his head. At the inquest, she confessed that the patient did not appear to be injured during the second check up. The time of his death was listed between 10:00 pm, April 20 and 7:00 am, April 23rd.
Inquest and the Coroner’s Report
Rapport, a bi-monthly newsletter of the hospital, reported on the inquest under a staff committee. It revealed that Douglas died “ accidentally” and of “injuries received by his own actions.” The staff committee was referred by the coroner A. E. Noble. They began to investigate the death of the patient since he was found dead beside his hospital bed at 6:00 am on the morning of April 22. The official inquest started on July 8, 1974, when a pathologist examined the body of the patient. He testified that Douglas died from a fluid in his lungs, which was caused by a blow to the side of his head and this injury had fractured his skull. It was also found that Douglas was in a coma prior to his death.
The inquiry also revealed that only one male nurse was in the male observation area. When he left to answer the nursing office phone, he returned and found Douglas lying on the floor next to his bed. He later confessed that he did not notice any signs of injury and put the patient back to bed. The pathologist reported that the injury was “very difficult” to detect. Even the doctor who pronounced Douglas dead testified that there was “no evidence of head injury” and “no blood on the patient or his bed. ” The only unusual thing he noticed was a few drops of liquid coming out of the patient’s nose.
In the end of the investigation, the jury signed a verdict in which they recommended that the Ministry of Health should review salaries of the nursing staff. In addition, the coroner congratulated the staff for their “dedication” and “attentiveness,” stating, “I have been very impressed with the quality of the hospital staff who has given evidence.”
“Accidental Death: Inquest.” Rapport: 1, 3.
Lethbridge, Gene. “Please Let me Die, Man Begs Nurse.” The Advertiser. July 10, 1974.
All primary sources retrieved from the Archives for the History of Canadian Psychiatry and Mental Health Services, January 30 and April 21–22, 2005.