Editor’s note: this story contains content some readers may find upsetting.
The nurse called to the scene where Chris Van Camp was found dead told court it was clear there was nothing she could do to save him during day three of his alleged killer’s trial Wednesday.
Van Camp was found dead in his Saskatchewan Penitentiary cell shortly after 8 a.m. on June 7, 2017. He had returned to the prison the night before after being arrested for violating his parole when he overdosed on drugs while living in Alberta. His former cellmate, Tyler Vandewater, is facing a charge of second-degree murder.
Wednesday began with Registered Nurse Dinah Willoughby, who identified herself as the head nurse of the maximum-security unit at the time of the incident.
She was doing her regular rounds on the morning of June 7, administering medication to inmates at about 8 a.m. when a guard ran up to her station and told her she needed to go to a different part of the unit “and it was bad.”
Willoughby said she arrived on the scene as fast as she could, within three to four minutes.
When she arrived, two guards were standing inside the cell. Van Camp’s body had been uncovered.
She recalls one of the guards told her that he thought Van Camp had “been gone for a while.”
Willoughby saw Van Camp lying on his left side, facing the wall. She checked for a pulse and breathing, including through the use of a pulse oximeter, a medical device that sits on one’s finger and measured both pulse and the oxygen saturation of a patient’s blood. Van Camp wasn’t breathing. The pulse read as zero.
Van Camp was cold and stiff, she said. He had blood on his face, back and chest. He was lying in a pool of blood that had collected under his torso.
She turned to the guard.
“There’s nothing I can do,” she remembers saying. “He’s been gone for a while.”
That was clear, she said, because he was cold and stiff, and because of the pale colour of his skin.
While Willoughby was trained to be able to pronounce someone dead, by penitentiary rules, only a paramedic could make that designation.
The paramedics arrived about 15 minutes later.
While they had more advanced equipment, Willoughby said, they didn’t have to hook any of it up.
They placed their equipment on the ground.
“They just said time of death. They didn’t hook it up.”
According to an agreed statement of facts filed during the first day of court, Van Camp was pronounced deceased at about 8:16 a.m.
Willoughby said Van Camp was lying on clear garbage bags, the type given to inmates at the penitentiary. She said she could also see blood on the underside of the blankets that had been used to wrap him. They were hanging off the bed, the edge tucked under when she arrived.
She saw puncture wounds “all over his back” as well as on the back of his head and one over his eye.
According to the agreed statement of facts, the cause of death was excessive blood loss due to blunt force trauma and sharp force injuries of the body. He also suffered a collapsed lung caused by a weapon plunging into his right chest cavity, “which would have contributed to his death.”
Willoughby said Van Camp was found in his underwear, and that in addition to the blood on his face, body and on the bed, she saw a small amount near the toilet bowl in the far corner of the cell.
She spotted a shank between Van Camp and the wall.
On cross-examination, Willoughby said that dealing with stab or shank injuries is “very common” in maximum security. She also said that, in her opinion, by the time she arrived rigor mortis had set in.
Willoughby also cared for Vandewater
Rushing to the cell Van Camp and Vandewater shared wasn’t the only interaction Willoughby had with one of the two inmates that day.
As the head nurse, she was also summoned to examine Vandewater after he had been removed from the cell, cuffed and placed in an interview booth.
He had asked for health care, complaining about scratches on his body.
She didn’t do a full examination, rather, she assessed whether Vandewater had any urgent medical needs that needed to be attended to.
She determined he did not. Vandewater said the scratches were on his chest. As he was dressed in a full prison jumpsuit, she didn’t observe any injuries.
She was also called to Vandewater’s interview booth location later. He had complained his handcuffs were too tight. Willoughby examined his wrists and saw they were red from the cuffs. She didn’t notice any cuts, scrapes or bruises on his hands. She instructed officers to loosen his handcuffs and left.
Willoughby also told the court that she was familiar with Van Camp from his previous stay in prison.
“He was with us previously. He wasn’t a person who was in health care a lot,” she said, but they did have interactions.
On Van Camp’s return, Willoughby echoed the comments other correctional officers made that he was much thinner than his previous time in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary. He had previously been “pretty muscular,” she said.
It was standard procedure that all inmates transferred would be examined by a nurse the first morning there. That was typically done after medications were administered for the day.
Willoughby said she had received Van Camp’s medical file, including details of the overdose that put him in a four-day coma and led to his re-arrest for violating parole before his arrival at the institution.
Van Camp was prescribed an inhaler, but no other medications, she said.
Van Camp was not examined after being re-admitted to Saskatchewan Penitentiary. He arrived shortly after 10 p.m. Health care is closed after 7 p.m.
Lauren Laithwaite, Van Camp’s mother, has sued Saskatchewan Penitentiary for negligence in his death.
She’s taken issue with the lack of medical examination for her son before he was into the general population just two weeks after he came out of a coma.
She has argued he should have been examined before being admitted to his cell and his double-bunked living arrangement. Court resumes Thursday at 10 a.m. with testimony from officers who investigated the incident.