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Mother’s death still hurts
Donna Howell had a way of trying to put a positive spin on her cancer, just as her daughter, Lori Greene, desperately tries to lighten her horrible loss.
And that is by remembering she had the most “freaking awesome mother ever” for the shortened time that she did.
That privilege is what Greene passes on to her two children all the time.
“There’s a lot of girls with shitty moms or they don’t get along. Mom was an awesome mom for 26 years. I am really, really lucky,” she said, getting teary while talking about her mother during a recent interview at a coffee shop.
Howell died at 53.
She was a dedicated nurse who specialized in fetal assessments for high-risk pregnancies at Eastern Health — that is, until she had to retire as her cancer spread.
As sick as Howell was, she always took the time to do media interviews, telling reporters she was doing it for her two girls and so that no one else had to go through what had happened to her and the many others affected by botched tests to determine breast cancer treatment at Eastern Health.
She was one of more than 400 patients who received the wrong results from hormone receptor testing between 1997 and 2005 from the then Health Care Corp. of St. John's.
Howell testified at the Cameron Inquiry — which examined what went wrong to cause those botched tests as well as the disclosure debacle that resulted — and died in 2009.
When Howell found out she had to get chemotherapy, she said “Oh, I guess I’ll be off in my garden all summer.’ That’s how she looked at it,” Greene recalled of her mother’s positivity.
When Howell was told she would start radiation, she said it was just another new thing she was going to have to try.
Greene said her mom was easy-going and sweet, and could see the good in anyone, but drew the line at any harm that might come to her or her sister, Katie.
And so, despite her shyness about speaking in public, she never shied away from being outspoken about the way the testing errors were handled.
Family was always the most impotent thing — housework would wait for her children’s activities on her days off.
Greene was in university when her mother was diagnosed, and when she found about the testing errors.
“She put it down as misdiagnosed, so no different drug, just as simple as that — that’s how she said it. And a month or two later it was all in her bones … it was everywhere,” Greene said.
Howell only got to meet her first grandchild, Zachary.
“I would put Zachary in her arms, her feet and her hands, her skin was all gone off with the chemo she was taking. They were bright red and inflamed. She couldn’t do anything but she would try to get up and do stuff,” Greene recalled.
“I didn’t want her at it because it would hurt her, so I would pop Zachery in her arms. She couldn’t get up because she was afraid she would drop him. She would just sit there and love him.”
Greene would tend to Howell every day, draining fluid from her stomach, massaging her legs so she could move her knees and ankles.
They would talk about everything, including how if she’d had more time, she wanted to take Greene to a Justin Timberlake concert and Katie to Broadway shows in New York.
She never stopped being a mom.
“I had a bad day … I can’t hide it — everything shows on my face,” Greene recalled of an occasion when her mom was bedridden and dying and she didn’t want to burden her with her problem.
“She said, ‘Lori I am your mother. Tell me all about it.’ Even big girls need a hug. Here I was 25 with a baby.”
Howell died nine days after Zachary’s first birthday.
“There’s a lot of girls with shitty moms or they don’t get along. Mom was an awesome mom for 26 years. I am really, really lucky,” — Lori Greene
“She was so sick I literally drove the car across the lawn and right up to the front door,” Greene recalled.
She wishes Howell could have met her other grandchildren — her Maria, and Katie’s Lexi Donna in Alberta. She says she’d dote on them, no question.
“She would live at our house,” said Greene. “She did when she was sick.”
When she was too weak from the chemo to lift Zachary, she’d wheel through the house with him, and fold his little clothes from the clean laundry.
“She was like, ‘Nan’s boy. Are you Nan’s boy?’” Greene recalled.
The legacy of their grandmother is never lost on Zachary, now 10, and Maria, 7.
“Maria says, ‘Do you think me and you would be best friends like you and your mom?’ I say, ‘We’re best friends now.’ (Mom) would much rather get a homemade card from us than a big expensive gift any day. I know people say that on TV and that, but she legit did, and kept them all.”
Greene can’t forget Howell’s smile.
“There used to be doctors who would tell patients how to get to (the Fetal Assessment Unit). They would say, ‘Go in this way, take a left, and if you see a woman smiling you are in the right spot,’” Greene said.
“When she first passed away, all I could see was her sick — her yellow skin and her cheekbones, and I thought, oh my God, that’s the only way I am ever going to see my mom.’ But then it was probably two months later it kind of faded.”
The day that Howell worked her last shift as a nurse in 2006 was Greene’s first official shift as a nurse.
Every day when Greene walks into the Health Sciences Centre, where she works as a maternity nurse, she passes the Graces monument — sculptured stone women meant to acknowledge the patients affected by the breast cancer treatment testing errors.
Greene hates it.
“I just feel like the money could have been used for something better than a statue that people go over and sit on. People don’t really know what it was for, walking by,” she said.
She’d rather have seen it go to medical research or equipment, like a simulator donated to the medical school in Howell’s memory.
Howell used to tell Greene how, as a child, she would always rush to playmates who were hurt.
Howell’s parents, John and Grace Crewe — now in their 80s, don’t know where Howell got the idea to be a nurse, but it was clearly in her as a child.
“She was only a little thing and you couldn’t keep a package of Band-Aids in the house at the time because she had them all plastered on her doll,” John recalled.
The doll she wanted for Christmas was a nurse — a tough find back then, but they managed to pull it off.
As a teenager, she was a volunteer candy striper at the old Grace Hospital, including when her youngest sister was born.
She studied at Memorial University and worked summers at the Grace, and part time at Sobeys until she got her nursing degree.
Howell’s girls turned out with the same work ethic, Grace said.
Even after nurses stopped wearing the traditional uniform, Howell continued wearing the cap as a sign of pride in her profession, her parents said.
She’d spend hours with a distraught patient after her shift ended, said John.
“She wasn’t someone who just would get up and go to work. She loved work,” said Grace.
In their west-end St. John’s home where the family moved in the early 1970s, the wall adjacent to the kitchen and living room has a photo of Howell taken just after she was diagnosed.
Her parents keep it there so they can see her each morning.
“It was an awful tragedy,” John said of the errors, his voice breaking, the pain seeming as fresh now as when it happened.
He reads quietly from his journals, passages highlighting the times his daughter and son-in-law brought the awful news as the disease progressed.
“They say time heals, but it doesn’t,” John said, his voice quivering.
“Every time we go to her grave, we say, ‘You should not be here,” Grace added.
“We go pretty often — all the special days,” John said.
“Christmas morning, most people get up and open their presents. We get up and go to the cemetery.”
“Every time we go to her grave, we say, ‘You should not be here.” — Grace Crewe, Donna Howell’s mother
They feel they have to keep going.
“She wouldn’t want us to be sad all the time — she would never have wanted that,” Grace said.
When Howell first got sick, Grace and all her daughters began an annual trip to Montreal or Toronto for a long weekend to take their minds off what was going on. They got four or five in before Howell was gone.
But Howell wanted the trips to continue and she’s always with them now on the journeys— they carry her photo.
Though there is no direct link made officially between the testing errors and those who died, Greene is convinced of the impact and says Howell would still be working as a nurse if not for the mistakes. She said the only reason her mother would have retired was to be a full-time grandmother.
“Definitely,” said Greene.