In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall

Closing ranks

Laurie Johnston is suing Windsor’s Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, Leamington District Memorial Hospital, and Dr. Barbara Heartwell for $2.2 million. She was told that she bad breast cancer. The disease runs in her family so it wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. Then, two weeks after the mastectomy, Dr. Heartwell told Johnston that she didn’t have breast cancer and she never had breast cancer.

According to the CBC article, “Mistaken mastectomy victim sues for $2.2M,”

Another doctor had given Johnston the initial diagnosis of cancer, but a pre-surgery pathology report showed she did not have cancer.

Heartwell misread that final report and proceeded with the mastectomy on Nov. 5, 2009.

Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital officials said Heartwell only discovered her mistake when doing a post-surgery report.

Dr. Heartwell voluntarily stopped performing procedures immediately. She then changed her mind a few days later and the hospital suspend her from surgery.

The real kicker is that this wasn’t the first time it happened. In 1995, Dr. Heartwell told Ginny Hillis she had cancer and she needed surgery as quickly as possible. Hillis sought a second opinion and found she didn’t have cancer. Further tests confirmed the lack of cancer.

Last week, Dr. Heartwell and her lawyer met with the hospital board of directors, arguing for her suspension to be ended. The board agreed, with a few restrictions. Her procedures will be limited to elective surgeries, and for a minimum of three months, another surgeon will review each case before she can operate.

What exactly is going on here? I thought unions were powerful, but they’ve got nothing on the organizations supporting doctors and lawyers! Dr. Heartwell performs unnecessary surgery because she misread a report. She removed part of someone’s body.

The chair of the hospital board, Egidio Sovran said:

The midterm suspension of Dr. Heartwell’s privileges was not necessary, because Dr. Heartwell was not an immediate threat to patient safety.

Not a threat? I’m forced to assume that Sovran believes that this isn’t an issue of any real significance. Chief of staff Dr. Gord Vail seems to agree. Commenting on the Ministry of Health’s investigation into the matter, he said,

We think that this will just show them that we are taking everything serious [sic], and that we’re trying to put our best foot forward and show them that hey, we are taking responsibility.

Taking everything seriously? Taking responsibility? How’s that, again? She made a grievous error at minimum, and one could easily argue that she was grossly negligent. She didn’t operate for a few weeks and has to have another surgeon look over her shoulder for a few months. Maybe she also received a stern look? Nothing I’ve read indicated the doctors and hospital will make any procedural changes to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. The hospital apologized to Johnston, but the meetings are held behind closed doors and it appears that everything is business as usual.

It seems that’s how they take responsibility at Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital.

Do you think my reaction is unfair? Help me with a little thought experiment. Imagine that you’re in the hospital. You’re wife/mother/sister just underwent a mastectomy and you’re at her bedside. It’s a major surgery, after all. The doctor comes in and explains that there never was any cancer. She simply misread the report that said there was no cancer so the surgery was entirely unnecessary. The doctor also says she’s very sorry.

Now, how do you react? What do you say? How do you feel when, a few weeks later, you hear she’s operating again?

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2 Comments

  1. Shawn

    I agree with you, absolutely disgusting. If this was a one time occurrence for the doctor, fine mistakes can be made, but seeing as she has done this before, I can only guess that there might be others out there that she has made mistakes on. I would hope that if one more comes forward, she gets suspended for life. If this was someone close to me, I would sue for the money and the full cost of reconstructive surgery.

  2. Kathleen Masse

    I find this heartbreaking. A mastectomy not only has a huge physical impact and long recovery for the patient (usually with complications related to axial lymph nodes that are also removed), it is traumatic for a woman’s sense of self, her sexuality, and her emotional well-being. A patient can have reconstructive surgery, but the physical and mental impact never go away. This poor woman must live with the consequences of the doctor’s mistake. The doctor, as far as I can see, suffers no real consequences at all.

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