The last witness

Barb Sweet
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Elizabeth Finlayson, who gave final testimony in breast cancer scandal, fought hard to beat cancer

Elizabeth Finlayson

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.”

Organizations: General Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital

Geographic location: Labrador, Toronto, Carbonear Cape Breton Buchans Wabush Mount Sinai Cambridge

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Recent comments

  • Donna Finlayson Kearns
    July 22, 2011 - 13:23

    It is so tragic that Aunt Beth was a victim of so many errors made by people who we should trust. When our loved ones are sick we have to trust the health care system to know what they are doing, this proves that too many mistakes can cause lives to be lost. Her children and husband have lost a wonderful person and she will be missed. R.I.P Aunt Beth.

  • Jane Finlayson Hopkins
    July 21, 2011 - 11:02

    Thank you all so very much for your kind words, thoughts & prayers. My Mom was so blessed to have so many people that cared . You have all been a great help to her & all of us these past years, months weeks & days. We will never be able to thank you all enough. The Finlayson Family

  • Jane Finlayson Hopkins
    July 21, 2011 - 10:57

    Thank you all so very much for your kind words, thoughts & prayers. My Mom was so blessed to have so many people that cared . You have all been a great help to her & all of us these past years, months weeks & days. We will never be able to thank you all enough. The Finlayson Family

  • Jane Finlayson Hopkins
    July 21, 2011 - 10:49

    Thank you all so very much for your kind words, thoughts & prayers. My Mom was so blessed to have so many people that cared . You have all been a great help to her & all of us these past years, months weeks & days. We will never be able to thank you all enough. The Finlayson Family

  • Cecil & Frances Fry
    July 21, 2011 - 00:00

    She was a wonderful woman a wonderful mother Grandmother and great Grandmother and a beautiful spirit. The Finlayson family lived across the street from our family for over twenty years and we have many fond memories of those times, Beth you were a real trooper and a great friend we will always remember your smile and may you rest in peace.

  • Dottie Hanagan
    July 20, 2011 - 19:51

    What a strong Lady,she was.Her Family was put ahead of herself..My Deepest Condolences in the loss of your Mom.I too had that cancer,but hopefully,I will be alright..RIP Mrs. Finlayson ........

  • Natalie Pear
    July 20, 2011 - 19:37

    A beautiful lady with a courageous spirit and a wonderful family...she always wore a smile and had the most contagious laugh! She will be missed by many in this place we call home! Her spirit will live on in her children who I have the privelege to call friends!

  • Evelyn Kelloway Mullett
    July 20, 2011 - 15:56

    I remember Beth Finlayson so well she and her family Beth was a Snow and lived next door to us in Buchans. She was a beautiful person and i was so glad to get to see when she was here for a visit she put her hand on my arm and said your mom was so sick and never complained my mom passed away from cancer at the young age off 51 i will always keep that with me what she said. I know you are in a much better place Beth and may God Bless her family .....

  • Erin McNeil
    July 20, 2011 - 15:35

    Beth was an absolutely amazing woman, not only did our healthcare system do a huge injustice for her and her family, but to everyone, for those who had the chance to meet her, they will never forget her and for those who didn't just know she was a beautiful woman with the most amazing spirit! She will be sadly missed...

  • Stephanie
    July 20, 2011 - 04:35

    This is such a sad story. I can't imagine having to go through what the family had to go through when she should have been considered to be retested. I lost my mother as well. She was only 62. She had bowel cancer. When I was reading this article, I had a little laugh to myself as mom would also say that when she got bad news, that it was just a bump in the road also. She fought for almost 5 years. She was a wonderful, caring and loving person, mother, wife and grandmother. Your mother is now an angel in heavan, as I am sure, she was here on earth. (Just like my mom!)

  • Dawn
    July 19, 2011 - 17:03

    I am sorry for your loss, she was definetely a strong woman. We get "free" heathcare , and I guess we get what we "pay" for. Long wait times, mistakes that have been fatal for patients . As my mother always said , our healthcare system bury their mistakes fpr the most part . Whey is it that certain procedures have to be done in halifax? If we are such a "have " province , then wht can't they have all of that here ? Although I think i would be afraid of trusting them to do a cornea transplant on my mother here .

  • Mark
    July 19, 2011 - 12:28

    A courageous person who made her private battle a public experience by her testimony at the Cameron Inquiry. Her detailed contributions to the inquiry shed light onto a health system and political spin machine that really didn't care about the public they are supposed to serve. Elizabeth Finlayson recalled with great detail her Cancer experience while others testified they could not remember if thay passed information to their boss. We are all better served from her brave testimony and heaven is a better place today with her soul in it.

    • Frankk Jr.
      July 19, 2011 - 19:32

      Thanks for your kind words! Son, Frank

    • Cheryl Johnson Harnum
      July 20, 2011 - 01:41

      I knew both Beth and Frank as very quiet people but I guess to have been mis diagnosed made her come out and speak ''up''. I hope that the Health care system realizes that we are human and others love us and hearts are broken when lives are gone because of carelessness! R.I.P.Beth and may God be with her family in a mighy way God bless you all and through the courageness of your wife,mother,grandmother,greatgrandnother,sister and friend may it help OTHERS and Beth's death not have been in ''VAIN'',

  • Marie
    July 19, 2011 - 09:42

    I am so very sorry ..I lost my Mom too early too because of as far as I am concerned a wrong diagnosis by a medical member..Please accept my deepest sympathy..Let's hope those people will learn..God Bless

    • Linda Snow
      July 20, 2011 - 16:29

      Thank you all so much for your kind words.Yes,my sister ,Beth was a very brave ,strong and courageous woman.Love you and miss you always Beth.....R.I.P.BETH.....XXOO

  • Christine Baldwin
    July 19, 2011 - 09:38

    God bless you Mrs. Finlayson. You were brave in so many ways and a true inspiration to all. You fought the good fight maintaining your dignity throughout it and made us proud that you chose to speakout (a decision that could not have been easy for you). Unselfishly you put others before yourself. I send my sincere condolences to your family and pray that they find comfort during this most difficult time. May your soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace.