Sixth trip to ER reveals colon cancer, woman dies next day

An emergency room doctor told Melda Murray’s family on Nov. 24 that she had about 24 hours to live.

The doctor was right. The Halifax woman died the next evening at the Halifax Infirmary at the age of 76.

That accurate prediction, what Richard Murray called his wife’s “death sentence,” is sadly ironic in that it came after months of doctors being unable to diagnose her colon cancer.

“We were just totally shocked,” Murray said in an interview Wednesday.

“I mean, I didn’t have time to be mad, I was just desperate. I wanted them to do something to save her if they could, or suggest something.”

The ER visit that brought such devastating news was the sixth that the family had made since Melda Murray began experiencing severe stomach pain and weakness in May.

On the first visit, no tests were done and she was sent home with instructions to take Tylenol for the pain.

An X-ray taken on the second visit was interpreted as showing a colon blockage but no further tests were done at that time or during subsequent visits, Murray said.

Complicating matters, the Murrays’ doctor was pregnant at the time and worked three days a week.

At one point, she moved her practice to British Columbia but eventually returned to Nova Scotia, Murray said.

“There really wasn’t much help from the doctor, the doctor was never available, especially on weekends.”

The MRI that revealed Melda’s cancer was done on the family’s sixth ER visit, the day before she died. Murray scrambled to get in contact with family members, including a son who lived in Winnipeg and had to fly to Fort McMurray to catch a direct flight to Halifax.

The doctor told us that there really was nothing they could do,” said Murray, his voice cracking with emotion. “And if she had treatment, she would continue to suffer. So my wife . . . said just stop the pain, and once that was the case, the doctors gave her drugs of some kind” and she went to sleep.

He and his son went out for breakfast and when they came back, Melda had been transferred to an in-patient bed in the infirmary.

“We talked to her, the nurses said she could still hear us. She looked at ease, she looked like she wasn’t in pain anymore, she had sort of a serene look on her face.”

Murray was at home getting clothes and supplies ahead of what he thought would be an overnight visit at the hospital when he received a call that Melda had become unresponsive. She died at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 25.

Nobody from the Halifax Infirmary emergency department was available for an interview Wednesday.

“It is difficult to address emergency department procedure without more context around the patient’s experience,” said Tanya Penney, senior director of Emergency Program of Care at the Nova Scotia Health Authority. “Our patient relations team will contact the patient’s spouse and hopes to address his concerns privately.”

Asked how he wished things could have gone differently, Murray said a more in-depth scan, such as the MRI taken the day before she died, should have been done sooner. He also said a few of the ER staff reacted to their multiple visits in a way he didn’t appreciate.

“There’s nobody in charge that I knew of. There’s a mass of people, (staff are) all overworked, nobody has a family doctor, they just fill up the emergency rooms. ”

Murray spoke from Jamaica, where he and Melda have lived at various times in their long marriage. She died a month before their 57th wedding anniversary.

He remembered his wife as a kind and happy person, who was active into her early 70s.

“I was born in Ontario but my family were Maritimers and I grew up in Halifax after age two

. . . She was an air force child, they moved all around the country but she was born in Halifax. She came back when she was in her teens and that’s when I met her.”

They moved to Jamaica in 1967 when Murray, an engineering graduate from the Nova Scotia Technical College, got a job with Alcan and he later started his own engineering and construction firm, the award-winning R.A. Murray International Ltd.

The couple left Jamaica in the 1970s after the rise of the socialist Michael Manley government, which wasn’t sympathetic to foreign business interests. But between 2007 and 2011, R.A. Murray International spearheaded a massive infrastructure project in the West Indies country in which 17 bridges and associated roads were built.

“There are some people here who knew her and loved her and it’s made it much easier than staying at home in Halifax, I would have had a hard time there,” Murray said. “It’s been several months but . . . I take it one day at a time.”

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