Vance's story

Woman who lost her son urges health-care providers to listen to patients and families

Donna Davis
Donna Davis, a nurse from Saskatchewan, became an advocate for patient safety after the death of her son more than a decade ago.

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2015

When things go wrong in health care, it's sometimes due to a lack of communication.

That can happen when health-care providers don't listen to a patient or family member who has concerns or questions, or it can occur when hospital staff don't keep each other in the loop with regard to a patient's care. 

No one understands this better than Donna Davis, a nurse from Saskatchewan who became an advocate for patient safety after the death of her son more than a decade ago.

In March 2002, Davis's 19-year-old-son, Vance, was involved in a car accident. After he was admitted to a Regina hospital, he underwent a CT scan and was diagnosed with a concussion. But as he slowly slipped into unconsciousness, Davis knew something more serious was happening.

"I mentioned my concern to the staff many, many times over the next three days," says Davis, who watched in frustration as Vance was moved out of intensive care to a ward bed. "But they ignored us."

Finally, Vance's condition caught the staff's attention. Davis was called to the hospital at 3 a.m., when she met the on-duty neurosurgeon. He was frustrated, according to Davis, because he had been in hospital each day of Vance's stay, but was never told of the case.

Surgery was performed, but her son was declared brain dead.

"There were so many opportunities for the staff to rescue him," says Davis.

In the years since Vance's death, Davis has become deeply involved in patient advocacy. In addition to serving as co-chair of Patients for Patient Safety Canada for eight years, Davis has attended numerous conferences across the country, sharing her story and raising awareness about the need for better communication among health-care providers, and between staff and patients and their families.

Davis has also been an advocate for better sharing of information following incidents where patients in care are harmed, helping to develop guidelines for disclosure, which have been endorsed by the Canadian Patient Safety Institute. Along with Carol Kushner, Davis won the 2014 Quality of Life award from the Canadian College of Health Leaders in recognition of her work.

"Vance was a fixer in life. Now he's a fixer in death. I'm hopeful, really hopeful, that things are changing," she says.

Davis will bring that message of hope to Winnipeg on Oct. 27 when she will speak at an event sponsored by the Manitoba Institute of Patient Safety (MIPS) and the Winnipeg Health Region. The occasion, which will include a session for the public and another for health-care professionals, is one of several events planned for Canadian Patient Safety Week, Oct. 26 to 30.

Laurie Thompson, MIPS Executive Director, says that while Davis's son died more than a decade ago, the challenges of good communication, listening to patients and families, and putting them at the centre of care and decision-making remain.

"We can all learn from her tragic loss," says Thompson. "Donna has a powerful impact on the audience that can help encourage them to speak up and be confident in their rights as patients."

Wendy Singleton, Manager of Improvement with Quality and Patient Safety, says the Region understands the importance of communication in providing safe patient care and has taken steps to promote it. For example, she says the Region encourages patients and their families to ask questions of health-care providers who are delivering care.

"If you have questions or concerns about the care you or a family member received, it is best to begin by talking with a person at the place where carewas received," says Singleton. "It's okay to ask the nurse or doctor questions. This helps us understand your concerns."

If patients or families feel they are not being listened to, they have the option of contacting the hospital's patient representative. Each hospital in Winnipeg has designated staff responsible for connecting you with the right people to have your concerns and suggestions addressed.

If you still need help, you can contact one of the Winnipeg Health Region client relations co-ordinators. Their job is to collect the information about health-care concerns and help resolve them. Patient and family experiences highlight where health-care staff are doing well and where communication or services can be improved.

Isabelle Jarrin, a clinical nurse specialist with the Region's Quality Improvement and Patient Safety Unit, says the Region encourages the use of enhanced communication techniques by staff.

One example is the Region's SBAR communication technique. The acronym stands for "Situation, Background, Assessment, Recommendation," and it provides a way to quickly communicate pertinent information in potentially life-threatening situations. 

"It is also encouraged in other situations, such as patient handovers during shift changes, transfers or discharges," says Jarrin. "Also when communicating within the interdisciplinary team, to help effectively form the information being shared and relay a request for action."

Other examples are the safety huddles used by facility staff to review recent safety issues, anticipate and plan care for the immediate future, report significant events and plan how to resolve them.

"Huddles help interdisciplinary team members to have a clear idea of what they have to achieve in the immediate care of a patient," says Jarrin, adding that the Region has implemented the process of safety huddles following all incidents of a patient falling.

Still, says Jarrin, there is always room to improve how things are done, and Davis's story emphasizes the point.

"I think the goal of asking Donna Davis to share her story is to underscore the importance that each person working in the Region has in promoting safe, quality patient care, and how effective communication allows the various pieces of the puzzle to come together."

Susie Strachan is a communications advisor with the Winnipeg Health Region.

It's safe to ask

The Winnipeg Health Region encourages people to ask questions about the care they or a loved one receives while in hospital. Start with your health-care provider. If you still have concerns, contact a patient care representative at a hospital or a client relations co-ordinator.

To contact a patient care representative at any Winnipeg hospital, look for information posters or ask the staff.

To contact a client relations co-ordinator with Winnipeg Health Region Client Relations:

Call: 204-926-7825

Building better communication

Patient advocate Donna Davis will deliver a talk entitled "We Listen, We Learn, We AdVANCE - Putting Patients and Families at the Centre of Health Care." Members of the public are invited to attend Davis's talk at 7 p.m. on Oct. 27, at the Masonic Temple, 420 Corydon Avenue. For more information, visit

Davis will also speak at a session for health-care professionals. Health-care providers wishing to attend must register, and can do so by visiting


Patient Safety Week:
Patients for Patient Safety Canada:

Wave: March / April 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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