Neighbours, son believe defibrillator in locked office could have helped save Manitoba Housing tenant

Manitoba Housing residents who tried to help a neighbour in apparent cardiac arrest believe his death could have been prevented if a life-saving defibrillator wasn’t kept out of sight in a locked office. 

Curtis Robinson collapsed last December near the lobby of his Winnipeg 55-plus apartment building at 101 Marion St., while waiting for a medical appointment

“I watch my [CCTV] camera all the time and I seen this poor guy drop, and I thought maybe he had a stroke or seizure,” said building resident Rob Vermeppe, who saw Robinson go into medical distress via the entrance camera.

Tenant Patricia Hiebert said she saw Robinson, 70, on the ground. A resident dragged him into the building before a home-care nurse arrived and tried CPR, she said.

“And then somebody had said, ‘Do you have one of those defibrillator machines?’ and everybody said, ‘I don’t know,'” Hiebert said.

“Then around the corner comes one of the janitors and we asked him, and he goes, ‘Yeah, we have one, but it’s in the office.'”

Hiebert said by the time the caretaker returned with the machine, which she estimated was six or seven minutes after Robinson had collapsed, it was too late.

“Somebody should have known that we had one, but nobody knows. It’s not posted anywhere, so that was the problem.”

Patricia Hiebert, a Manitoba Housing resident, wants signage letting tenants know where the defibrillators in their buildings are. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Robertson’s son Daniel said he is waiting for the final medical examiner’s report but has been told his father’s death was likely caused by cardiac arrest. 

“I’m convinced that they could’ve at least resuscitated him until he got to the hospital and at that point, I’m sure that the doctors would’ve been able to intervene and very likely save his life,” Daniel said in an emotional interview from Ottawa.

“It’s still fresh and I’m still in a lot of pain.”

Tenant Eloise Robinson said although they weren’t actually related, Curtis was “like a brother” to her.

She says neither of the two building caretakers who were nearby when he collapsed, nor two nearby home-care workers, knew how to use the defibrillator. 

“I ran to Curtis and I grabbed his hand. His eyes — he was looking at me as if to say, ‘No no no, I’m not ready yet,’ and I told him to hold on.” 

Curtis Robinson was a father. He was 70 years old when he died. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

She thinks the defibrillator may have been kept in the office so it wouldn’t be stolen, but she and other residents hope that speaking out will prompt moving it to a more appropriate location. She contacted the Manitoba Liberal Party, hoping to draw attention to the issue.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Robinson’s death is “a terrible story,” but is “really about attitude as well as training.”

“Not everyone is going to know how to use a defibrillator, but all staff at Manitoba Housing should,” Lamont said in a statement.

Required in some public places, but not apartments

Families Minister Rochelle Squires said Manitoba Housing is committed to ensuring staff are aware of defibrillator locations.

“Manitoba Housing will continue to review the signage and access to these devices, and currently meets or exceeds the requirements for access to defibrillators. AED [automated external defibrillator] instructions are designed to be followed by individuals without special training,” she said in a statement.

Manitoba law requires defibrillators in places like gyms, malls and schools, but not in apartment buildings.

Government guidelines say the life-saving machines are most effective when used within three minutes of the onset of sudden cardiac arrest, and so should be installed in a location with easy rapid access.

“It must be clearly visible, located in a common area and easily accessible to members of the public without assistance from staff at the facility,” the province’s guidelines say. 

A government spokesperson confirmed the defibrillator was stored in the building’s office but didn’t explain why it was kept out of sight. 

Daniel Robinson believes his father’s death could’ve been prevented if a defibrillator was in an accessible spot, instead of in a locked office. (CBC)

Robinson’s son said it’s unacceptable a defibrillator was kept in a spot that wasn’t easily accessible. 

“It just angered me a lot to know that this is not an out-of-the-blue, random occurrence that could have happened,” he said. “It’s a 55-plus building with a defibrillator on site. Why were the caretakers not trained on this equipment?”

He wants Manitoba Housing caretakers to be given CPR training and taught how to use a defibrillator.

“We’re never going to get him back, so to best remember him I’m just going to … keep being the best person I can and when things aren’t right, speak up and make sure change happens,” Daniel Robinson said.