Canada's largest veterans facility is under fire from several families with complaints their frail relatives have been neglected or forced to endure unsanitary conditions.
They also say raising concerns at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre – among them delayed bathing and feeding, soiled sheets, dead mice in rooms, a lack of toilet paper, and constant changes of rooms and caregivers – were mostly met with indifference or hostility.
"It's appalling what's going on in the veterans' wing of Sunnybrook," says Rodney Burnell, whose 92-year-old father, George, lives on the spartan 3rd floor of K Wing. "They fought for us and it's our turn to fight for them."
Sunnybrook suggests the complaints are from a few malcontents. The facility said surveys show sector-leading levels of patient and family satisfaction.
It says complaints are taken seriously, investigated and acted on as required.
"We want every veteran to get the best care possible," medical director Jocelyn Charles said.
A spokesman for Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney says the minister is sending a senior official immediately to Sunnybrook to investigate the complaints.
"Minister Blaney takes the concerns of the veterans at the Sunnybrook facility very seriously," said Jean-Christophe de le Rue in an e-mail.
In a section of its sprawling campus, Sunnybrook is home to 500 veterans of the Second World War and Korean War. For many, it's much like a pleasant old-age home. Others need care for even basic functioning and live in a hospital-like setting. It is among this group the complaints seem loudest.
Some families – those whose relatives need the most care – say there's a bleak reality beyond the pomp of Remembrance Day, the welcoming gardens and Warriors Hall with its well-worn furniture: Moaning patients ignored; others left to stare at ceilings for hours; dentures hanging from mouths.
The Burnells cite a litany of issues with their father's care, including that he has been moved eight times without notice to the family.
"My husband was in a real panic. He didn't know where he was," Dorothy Burnell says.
The facility says patients are placed according to their care needs, meaning they are moved from time to time. Sometimes patients are moved because their bed or room is required for someone else.
It would be "very rare" for someone to be moved without relatives knowing, Dr. Charles says. "We have a whole system of notifying people."
Residents, many of whom are unable to feed themselves, go hungry or get cold food, relatives say, because there aren't enough caregivers.
"We try to feed every veteran in a timely manner," Dr. Charles counters. "When we're aware of any delays, we look at what were the system [has] issues and [if] there's an improvement we can make."
Some relatives hire their own caregivers to keep watch over their loved ones.
Jackie Storrison, whose 91-year-old father has been at Sunnybrook for three years, says the care has "seriously dropped," but efforts at redress were stonewalled.
"They wrote the book on excuses," says Ms. Storrison, who keeps a journal of incidents. "My interaction with anyone there has been very negative and non-productive. So I've given up."
Ms. Storrison, who puts her father to bed most every night, says she frequently discovers feces on his sheets, but has been chastised for changing them.
At one point, she says her dad went without toilet paper for three days. She says his primary-care nurse said there was nothing she could do because it was a housekeeping matter.
Often, she says, his medications aren't administered.
Ms. Storrison says one of the people she complained to should be called the "don't-bother-the-nurses" manager.
Ms. Burnell said her complaints about mice and droppings were dismissed as something that happens in nursing homes because residents eat in their rooms.
Staff laid traps next to his bed then forgot them, she says.
"My son looked underneath the window-ledge area and saw all these [dead] mice," Ms. Burnell, 86, says.
Recently, she says she found her husband severely bruised on the bridge of his nose but nobody could say what happened and no one made any note of the injury.
Sunnybrook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the claim.
Nancy Smokler, manager of patient relations, expressed surprise at most of the grievances, saying no one had come to her despite her "open door."
"If people are not finding their complaints are being addressed on the unit … they can be told to come and see me."
Ms. Smokler said the hospital has dealt with the mice issue.
Sunnybrook gets funding from both the province and Ottawa.
The facility complies voluntarily with Ontario standards and submits to quality audits – the last one was several years ago, according to operations director Dorothy Ferguson. But it is ultimately accountable to Veterans Affairs Canada.
The facility laid off 12 full-time and eight part-time registered nurses in April. However, Ms. Ferguson insists only 16 registered nurses and registered practical nurses out of roughly 500 left this year.
Still, families complain about constant staff turnover, which is especially stressful for residents with dementia. Newer staff lack experience or familiarity with patients, they say.
Sunnybrook's patient-to-nurse ratios are as good or better than similar facilities, Ms. Ferguson says.
Stephen Little, area director with Veterans Affairs Canada, says the facility has budget "constraints" but there are no issues with the care it provides.
Sunnybrook, he points out, is not as generously endowed as more expensive private nursing homes, but it meets or exceeds standards, he says.
On occasion, a resident may be dressed or bathed later than usual because staff may be busy, he says.
"As with any large institution, there are priorities, [but] at no time is the safety and the well-being of the residents being jeopardized in any way," Little says.
Families say they chose Sunnybrook – which bills itself as one of Canada's foremost veterans' centres – because of its first-class reputation.
The reality was a shock, some families say.
Debra Stuart, whose 90-year-old father has been in Sunnybrook since April last year with advanced dementia, says she tried in vain for months to get anyone to listen to her concerns.
While some staff are caring and knowledgeable, she says she's also seen patients verbally abused or handled roughly, seen their basic care neglected and a dire shortage of nurses in off hours.
On the other hand, Ms. Stuart's sister Randi says she's "extremely happy" with her father's care, while Sunnybrook says Ms. Stuart has been abusive toward staff – something she denies.
Dave Gordon, executive director of the Royal Canadian Legion, Ontario provincial command, says he's had no complaints about Sunnybrook in several years – except from Ms. Stuart.
One woman, who asked her name not be used, calls the five years of care her father received before he passed away recently "fantastic."
Even so, she says his care was compromised because of staffing cuts among registered nurses.
Sunnybrook is adamant its level of care is as good as or better than comparable facilities.
As he munches down on a hamburger purchased at the cafeteria, an ambulatory vet responds when asked about his care: "It's perfect. I wouldn't leave here for all the world."
Yet, he, too, immediately describes unhappiness over constant caregiver changes.