Father of Montreal marathon runner who died accuses organizers of ‘gross negligence’

A day after the release of coroner’s report into the death of Patrick Neely — the 24 year-old who died after going into cardiac arrest at last year’s Montreal marathon — Neely’s father is speaking out about what he calls the “gross negligence” the report reveals.

“My initial reaction is a huge sense of disappointment.  When I took a look at all of the things that went wrong, it was a real comedy of errors,” Sean Neely told CBC News in an interview Tuesday.

Sean Neely describes the emergency response to his son’s cardiac arrest during the race as ‘a comedy of errors’. (Submitted by Sean Neely)

The coroner’s report outlined a series of lapses that may have contributed to Patrick Neely’s death, including communication problems, poor organization and a shortage of volunteers.

“I was hugely upset and enraged. It was just one heart-wrenching fact after another. It was a very difficult read, to be honest,” Neely said of the report.

‘A great guy’

Sean Neely said his son Patrick was a special person.

“There wasn’t anyone that didn’t like Patrick. He had a great sense of humour, a great athlete. Just a great guy,” Neely said.

He said Patrick had a large circle of friends after attending a French high school and English CEGEP, and then l’Université de Montreal to study engineering.  He had also worked as a ski instructor at Mont-Tremblant and played competitive soccer.

Sean Neely said his son Patrick was a strong athlete with a great sense of humour who everyone loved. (Submitted by Sean Neely)

Indeed the coroner’s report noted that Patrick Neely,despite having a minor heart condition, was in good physical shape with “significantly higher than average tolerance for exercise for his age.” Neely’s heart condition was noted on the bib that he wore the day of the marathon.

Day his son died was ‘surreal’

Sean Neely remembered that day as being surreal. 

He said he was waiting at the finish line of the race along with Patrick’s mother, brother and sister.

Sean Neely said he was at the finish line that day waiting for his son, who never showed up. (Radio-Canada)

They were proud of him, and were tracking his progress in the race on an app.

“We were expecting him to cross in front of us. We didn’t see him,” Neely said.

“When we couldn’t find him, and clearly he should’ve passed the finish line much earlier, we started to really get nervous.  That’s when we started to try to figure out where he might be,” Neely said.

He said race officials were no help.

“They were so disorganized. When we went to find out if there was any news on a young runner having problems, they had no idea, even though it had happened 20 or 30 minutes earlier,” Neely said.

Ultimately, the family tracked Patrick’s phone to Notre-Dame Hospital. They rushed there, and were greeted at the door by hospital staff who explained what happened.

Patrick was transferred to the CHUM superhospital a short time later, where he died that evening.  

“I said to myself, ‘Is this real? This can’t be real.’ It was literally saying goodbye to your son eight hours later. It was just … an out-of-body experience,” Neely said.

‘Catastrophe’

Neely said reading the coroner’s report was helpful in terms of having a clearer idea of what happened that day, but mostly filled him with frustration.

Neely puts most of the blame for what happened that day on race organizers.

The coroner’s report noted they didn’t have enough volunteers on site that day, and that their communication system didn’t allow for police and medical staff to easily share information.

Particularly difficult for Neely to swallow was the fact that there were medical teams and a defibrillator close to the spot where his son collapsed.

“My understanding was that about a block away was somebody with a defibrillator in a backpack on a bicycle, and the idea was they could be dispatched very quickly, within 30 seconds of somebody having a heart issue,” Neely said.

The coroner’s report showed that it took more than 10 minutes for paramedics to arrive on the scene with a defibrillator because of a series of communication breakdowns.

The coroner noted in his report that access to a defibrillator within five minutes could have saved Patrick’s life.

Father wants to see ‘serious changes’

Neely said no one from the marathon ever officially contacted the family to offer condolences.

“I don’t know what it is that is required in order to get them to react. They need to take full responsibility for this. They need to stand up and make some serious changes inside that organization,” Neely said.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Montreal Marathon race director Dominique Piché resigned after Patrick Neely’s death. Sean Neely says Piché never spoke to the family. (Isaac Olson/CBC)

The marathon’s director, Dominique Piché, resigned following the race and said at the time he accepted full responsibility.

The new boss of the marathon responded to the coroner’s report in a statement emailed to CBC News on Monday.

“We have reviewed the coroner’s report and would like to begin by reiterating our heartfelt sympathies to Mr. Neely’s family and loved ones,” said the race’s chief executive, Eddy Afram.

“We have discussed and will continue to discuss with the City of Montreal, police and emergency responders measures to mutually ensure the highest safety standards for any future editions of the marathon.”

Neely said that’s not enough. He says he wants concrete action from the race organizers.

Considering legal action

Neely said the family plans to review the report further and consult a lawyer.

He’s not ruling out legal action.

But Neely knows none of that is enough to bring back his son.

“We’re a very close family. The hurt is deep and painful. It’s gonna take awhile to heal,” he said. 

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