A United Church minister in Ontario, Canada, accused of criminal negligence in the manslaughter death of his wife, was sentenced to three years in jail yesterday. The judge left no doubt as to the intention of the verdict.
[T]he message to the public has to be loud and clear: In this type of case, the sentence must be denunciatory and exemplary and reflect society’s abhorrence in letting someone die in such a horrific manner.
The reverend Nico Vanderstoel had pleaded guilty to the charge, which came after his wife of 44 years, Heather, became bedridden with the effects of multiple sclerosis. Vanderstoel soon stopped providing adequate care, neither requesting medical nor social help for his wife.
By the time the state intervened, Heather Vanderstoel’s fate was sealed. She died of complications from decubitis ulceration, or bedsores.
The facts of the case require a seriously strong stomach.
On March 15, 2011, a For Seniors Only employee arrived at the home to do paperwork for the provision of homecare help for Heather and “the smell of rotting flesh was overwhelming,” said assistant Crown attorney Karen Lische. The employee talked to Heather, but could only see her face as the rest of her body was covered by blankets.
The next day, For Seniors Only employees arrived to start providing homecare services and found Heather immobile, “living in a state of squalor and filth” and her body covered with infected bedsores.
They immediately decided to get Heather to hospital by ambulance, but the efforts to remove her by six paramedics were hindered by the home’s overpowering odour. “There was a wall of smell that hit them as they walked toward the front door,” said Lische.”It was 15-20 feet from the front door of the home.” On more than one occasion, a paramedic had to stop, go outside and throw up, said Lische, adding that Heather was described as “a corpse that speaks to you.” …
The ambulance that brought Heather to Health Sciences North … had to be decommissioned.
After surgery, it took two to four people two to four hours to change Heather’s dressings daily, said Lische. The process was extremely painful for the woman. “Her screams could be heard on other hospital floors.”
What Nico Vanderstoel did was obviously wrong, but I don’t know enough of the circumstances to unequivocally condemn his behavior. In fact, I feel a soupçon of compassion for a septuagenarian who possibly grew overwhelmed by the task of caring for a chronically sick and obese (200-plus-lbs) spouse.
That’s what the case hinges on for me. Did Vanderstoel let Heather die out of callousness and convenience; or was he psychologically compromised and physically not equal to the task? If the former, three years behind bars isn’t nearly enough. If the latter, he may need care and counseling more than he does lots of time in a small cage.