Elizabeth Finlayson, the breast cancer patient whose astounding story gripped the Cameron Inquiry on the final day of testimony in 2008, has died.
Finlayson, 71, died July 1 in hospital in Labrador City. The mother of seven battled cancer for 11 years, as it spread through her bones, lungs and finally into her brain.
Finlayson’s recounting of her ordeal capped an inquiry that had already heard months of incredible testimony about the tragic boondoggle from patients, widowers, health care staff and administrators, politicians and others. But what she told the inquiry that day, Oct. 31, 2008, was a shocking addition to a scandal that rocked the province and launched a class-action lawsuit, which Eastern Health settled for $17.5 million.
St. John’s lawyer Sandra Chaytor, one of the co-counsels appointed to the inquiry, praised Finlayson for her strength, endurance and dignity, adding Finlayson and all the other patients were remarkable in telling their stories.
“She was inspirational to me in my own life,” Chaytor said Monday. “I was always grateful for the opportunity to meet her, even through such unfortunate circumstances.”
“We all remember her with fondness,” said lawyer Ches Crosbie, who led the class action.
“She was very courageous to come and speak.”
The inquiry — headed by Justice Margaret Cameron — examined why more than 400 patients received wrong test results from 1997 to 2005 at the General Hospital immunohistochemistry lab in St. John’s, as well as the fiasco surrounding the disclosure of the errors once they were caught in 2005.
The tests — which measure estrogen and progesterone hormones — are used to determine the course of treatment for breast cancer. Due to the mistakes, many patients failed to get beneficial hormone drug therapy treatment in a timely manner.
With the inquiry in full swing, Finlayson turned on her television in March 2008 and heard a story that sounded like her own.
Over the coming months, Finlayson, who testified with her daughter Jane Hopkins, learned how Eastern Health failed to count her again and again as a victim of the errors.
Diagnosed in 2000, Finlayson’s breast tissue samples weren’t among those sent to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto for retesting after the errors were discovered.
Other monumental missteps included failure for Finlayson to be followed up for years after an initial chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
After inquiries from the family, Eastern Health finally did a retest, but delayed telling her the new results for three months.
And then there was the matter of the apology. In May 2008, Eastern Health began preparing a letter of apology to Finlayson, but weeks later decided against it. An Eastern Health document stating “no apology required” was entered as an exhibit the day she testified.
The past year was especially a tough one for Finlayson in her cancer battle, said her youngest child, Tanya Finlayson.
“She was the most wonderful mother anybody could ask for,” Tanya said.
“It’s very devastating not to have her be part of our life. She was a strong and inspirational woman. She fought very hard to be here with us. It still doesn’t seem real to us.”
Tanya said she believes her mother would still be alive if she had appropriate treatment in the beginning.
“We were never given the opportunity to find out,” she said, choking with emotion.
Still, she said Finlayson never focused on what might have been, but instead viewed each recurrence as a “bump in the road.”
Finlayson and her husband, Frank, celebrated their 50th anniversary in October 2010. She was from Carbonear, her husband from Cape Breton, N.S., and they met in Buchans where Frank was a miner before moving to Wabush.
He cared for her “24-seven” with the help of family and home care workers, setting up a hospital bed at home. Tanya Finlayson said the home care workers, alloted only a certain number of paid hours by the health care system, also volunteered some of their own time to help.
On July 6, Eastern Health announced it was restarting the controversial tests, relying on its own results instead of Mount Sinai for the first time since the scandal erupted in 2005.
Finlayson’s wish was that no one else, especially not her family, should suffer from such errors again.
But Tanya Finlayson’s trust and confidence in the system is gone.
“It cost people their lives,” she said.
Finlayson could endure a lot of pain and didn’t complain. Although bedridden, she seemed to be doing well until about a week before she died, when she suffered a seizure, Tanya said.
Jane Hopkins, who lives in Cambridge, Ont., said she’s still angry at what happened to her mother.
“She was the type of woman who said ‘Look they did this to me, but they’re not going to do this to anyone else,’” Hopkins said.
Finlayson lived to meet her great-granddaughter, Emmah Hopkins, now 10 months old.
“That’s who she fought for,” said Hopkins, who was scared when she saw on TV news — with family in Labrador days after Finlayson’s death — that the tests would be restarted in St. John’s.
“I hope to God they treat (patients) properly, because I will be back down if not,” Hopkins warned.
Finlayson did eventually get her apology — in a conference call with Eastern Health and Hopkins said she accepted it, but was glad she told her story.
“She wanted the world to know that there’s women out there, there’s people out there suffering because of what they did,” Hopkins said.
“Everybody needs to know that my mother fought to the death. They took away the very best thing that happened to all of us.”