Too little, too late

Lana Payne
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Eastern Health's deception as bad as botched tests

Finally, it came. Too little. Too late. Too late for 108 women who have already died. Too late for their families, their children, their husbands.

Too late for so many other women - women who still live with cancer raging through their bodies and who may have had a chance at a longer life had they got the correct test results and, subsequently, the more effective treatment.

And too little for all the women who have suffered not just from cancer, but at the hands of a health-care administration that was more concerned with covering up than admitting mistakes had been made.

This was despite urging - according to testimony before the inquiry into faulty hormone receptor testing - from the health minister in 2005 to go public with the errors. The question here is why the Department of Health didn't overrule Eastern Health.

The relentless persistence in keeping the crisis under wraps. The lack of emotion, of compassion. The internal machinations aimed at avoiding rather than taking responsibility, or rather than responding with care and understanding.

It is perhaps this coldness that is the most bitter of pills to swallow - the way the crisis was handled, the way cancer patients were treated, the dismissal that we hear as e-mail transcripts are read into the inquiry record. That these women had to suffer through this callousness on top of everything else is a symptom of a much bigger problem.

The apology. Yes, it finally came after a week of heartbreaking inquiry testimony. It finally came two years after top officials at Eastern Health first knew there was a major health crisis as a result of bungled tests.

And when it came, it was from the volunteer chairwoman of the Eastern Health board, who reported that not even she had been kept fully in the loop by top managers regarding the vastness of the errors. Despite its apparent sincerity, the apology was anticlimactic, given what had preceded it.

Brave witnesses

With grace, dignity and more bravery than one can imagine, breast cancer survivors and the loved ones of the women who did not live long enough to tell their stories shared their anger and their frustrations. But ultimately they reminded all of us why bureaucracies must have as their foundation humanity - especially when that bureaucracy is running our health-care system, when the heart of the matter is a matter of life and death.

Tragically, somewhere that humanity got misplaced, suppressed at a time when it was needed the most, at a time when these women and their families needed it the most, at a time when it could have saved lives.

Next to something happening to your child or a loved one, the fear of getting breast cancer is a woman's worst. Health-care professionals understand this. So, why did the administration fail so miserably to get it?

It is a deep-seated fear. It is a fear women try not to dwell on, yet it is there - a nagging thought at the back of your mind. We think about it as we do our self-breast exams. We think about it every time we walk down the aisle of a department store and are faced with the commercialization of the disease - all that in-your-face pink. It is a little hard to miss. We think about it as women we know, love and respect fight it with every breath they take.

The first time I saw the award-winning documentary "My Left Breast" by Gerry Rogers, I was afraid to watch - because watching made breast cancer real and unavoidable. I couldn't force it to the back of my subconscious.

Her film made me angry - angry that so many women are forced to find an inner courage that turns them into survivors, or not.

Like thousands of women, it also made me cry. And it gave me hope.

Opposing injustice

And to think that this woman who fought cancer, who bravely bared her soul and so much more in a documentary so others might see they are not alone, who stood up to Eastern Health, would be branded a bully in an internal Eastern Health e-mail. Branded because she had the audacity to be an advocate, to use her voice, to stand up to a giant injustice.

It is inconceivable, almost. It would have been inconceivable had it not been for all the subterfuge by Eastern Health, and the attempts to hide the scope of the problem and the number of women affected. The resistance. The court cases. The coldness.

The faulty tests may have shaken a faith in the health-care system, but it is the actions of Eastern Health after the errors were discovered that is cause for as much concern and scrutiny.

Instead of taking responsibility, the fear of lawsuits sent management and their lawyers scurrying. And as a result, the attempt to suppress the scope of the problem only made matters worse, failing to restore faith in a system that the public desperately needs to have faith in.

We can only hope that the inquiry by Justice Margaret Cameron is the first step in restoring that faith.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. She can be reached by e-mail at Her column returns April 13.

Organizations: Department of Health, Eastern Health board

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