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Health authorities stonewall mom trying to transfer dying son to Kelowna

Jonathan Johnstone has a severe and aggressive form of dementia and living in a facility in Duncan.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/Devon Johnstone

Devon Johnstone first noticed something was wrong with her son Jonathan in Christmas of 2022. They had just moved to West Kelowna from Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast and when she sent him a gift, he seemed confused. He promised to pay her back.

It wasn’t a big thing but in hindsight, she knows that was the beginning. Jonathan Johnstone, 61, was a skilled craftsman who built kayaks and furniture out of wood, his last job was repairing a fancy yacht. He was always busy.

But then the work suddenly stopped.

She now knows it’s because he had an aggressive form of dementia that shrunk his frontal lobe by 70 per cent. He had a brief encounter with police in Parksville in January of 2023. She doesn’t know why or what happened, but it was enough for police to take him to the psychiatric ward of Nanaimo Regional General Hospital. His condition has gotten steadily worse since then to the point he can barely speak.

Devon has been desperately trying for more than a year to get him transferred to an Interior Health facility so she can see him, but can't seem to scale the brick wall of bureaucracy.

“Since March of 2023 we have tried to get him brought up to Kelowna so I could see him, look after him or whatever,” she told “All I know is that nothing's been done and I can't get him up here and it's very frustrating.”

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She’s 78 years old. Her husband can’t make the drive at all, so she has to do it herself while worrying about him at home. That’s a five- to six-hour drive to the ferry, the ferry itself, plus another hour to Duncan.

“And I've got to book into a hotel and stay a couple of days. All to talk to him for maybe 10 minutes. And I can't even talk to him, because he can't talk anymore,” she says. “It’s too far. Too far for an old lady. At least if they had him here, whether he talks or not, I would see him every day. The same kind of hospital here is in Rutland. So it's not far. It's certainly not far as going to Duncan.”

She’s done that trip four times and it’s taking a toll on her own health. But in the meantime, she has had countless conversations with Island Health and Interior Health to bring him closer to her home. She can’t seem to get a straight answer why he isn’t being moved.

She has involved MLA Ben Stewart, who got nowhere. Attempts to reach Health Minister Adrian Dix were ignored, she says. Correspondence with health authorities seen by is filled with non answers.

Devon says she was originally told by social workers at the Nanaimo hospital that he was placed there because he never changed the address on his licence so he was placed in that health authority.

Both health authorities refuted that as a reason, but also didn’t offer any explanation when contacted by Island Health said “patient transfers follow established processes that are focused on patient safety and ensuring the appropriate level of care,” but didn’t explain what those were.

“Once a patient is well enough to be transferred, sending and receiving facilities work together to ensure safe care throughout the process,” spokesperson Andrew Leyne said in an emailed statement, but offered no explanation about why it hasn’t happened in this case.

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It's the exact same runaround that Devon is getting.

A May 24, 2023 email from Interior Health Patient Care Quality Office assured Devon that “Interior Health along with the other Health Authorities in BC have all signed a Memorandum of Understanding regarding acute patient transfers between acute care facilities” and suggests that she tell the Nanaimo hospital to initiate the transfer “and if needed the escalation process.”

That memorandum does indeed purport to streamline patient transfers including “compassionate transfers that will support patients/families in their choices regarding where they receive care” and offers no explanation for why Jonathan remains hostage to die alone in Duncan. 

Six days later, Island Health confirmed they had already initiated the transfer.

“We (VIHA – Vancouver Island Health Authority) have followed the Memorandum of Understanding procedures regarding acute patient transfers, completed the escalation process and (Jonathan’s) transfer was still declined,” an Island Health social worker wrote her.

“From the family’s perspective, the family may want to inquire with them (Interior Health) how else the family can advocate for the transfer.”

An email in June suggested upper managers at Island Health tried to kickstart the transfer, but again nothing happened.

When he was in Nanaimo, Devon was able to speak to him almost daily. He could still speak at that time and was eager for the contact. But then, instead of a transfer to the Okanagan, he was transferred to Cowichan Lodge Tertiary Mental Health Facility in Duncan where she has no communication with him and rarely with health providers.

She doesn't know what else to do and no one is listening.

She said they told her last month he may be moved to an independent living facility somewhere on Vancouver Island soon, which raises a whole new round of questions she feels she is unlikely to get answers to.

— This story was updated at 8:15 a.m. Thursday, June 6, 2024 to correct the percentage of Jonathan Johnstone's frontal lobe loss.

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