True Stories: The Masectomies That Shouldn't Have Happened

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Imagine that you are told by a doctor that you have a breast cancer. A mastectomy is recommended. You agree. The procedure is done. A few weeks later, you find out that you never had breast cancer at all. It was a mistake. Horrible nightmare? For two Canadian women, it's much worse than a nightmare. It's their reality.

In the fall of 2009, Laurie Johnston had one of her breasts and six lymph nodes nodes removed by Dr. Barbara Heartwell at the Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ontario. Johnston had been told that she had breast cancer and agreed to the mastectomy. Two weeks after the surgery, she was informed by Dr. Heartwell that she didn't have cancer, that she had never had cancer. She had not needed the surgery. When I heard Johnston's story, my heart cracked a little. I could not even begin to imagine what the months after her surgery must have been like for her and her family.

Then it came out that Dr. Heartwell had made the same mistake before. After hearing Johnston's story, Janice Laporte came forward and said that it happened to her in 2001. Dr. Heartwell had told her that she had cancer, and she had one of her breasts removed. A week later, she was summoned to the hospital by Heartwell and told that it was a mistake. After giving herself some time to recover from the shock, Laporte launched a lawsuit, the results of which she cannot discuss due to a confidentiality agreement. Johnston and her family launched a $2.2 million lawsuit in early March.

After the revelation that this was not Dr. Heartwell's first mistaken mastectomy, my head kind of exploded. I kind of understand how a mistake could happen once. Or perhaps more accurately, I understand that despite everyone's best intentions and efforts -- mistakes happen. When Laurie Johnston came forward, it wasn't the first time that I had heard of a woman having had a mastectomy by mistake. Nor is it something that happens only within the Canadian medical system. It happened in St. Paul in 2002 and Long Island in 2007. No, the part that makes my head explode is that it happened with the same doctor, at the same hospital, twice within ten years.

Dr. Heartwell voluntarily withdrew from performing surgery at Hotel-Dieu when Johnston's story became public. After a few days, she decided she wanted her privileges back, which caused the hospital to suspend her. But last week, following a committee hearing, Hotel-Dieu reinstated Heartwell's privileges.

"The board concludes that the conduct, performance and competence of Dr. Heartwell will not expose patients to harm or injury, nor is it reasonably likely to expose patients to harm or injury," said the decision, read at a news conference Thursday afternoon by hospital chairman Egideo Sovran.

The hospital said patients who do not wish to be treated by Heartwell will have the option of seeking another doctor in the area.

I hope that this causes the hospital to look at other changes. I was kind of living my life under the assumption that when a truly colossal mistake like this happens, the hospital tends to know about it. That assumption would be wrong. Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital found out about Johnston's story only when a reporter made inquiries. At that point, the hospital reached out to Johnston and opened a probe into the mistakes.

I have to agree with Sheila Tofflemire at Moose and Squirrel when she says that the hospital has to bear some of the responsibility.

There was the opportunity to learn from a mistake so as not to repeat it, but that didn’t happen here. Janice Laporte assumed the hospital would have been informed about her mistaken mastectomy, which seems like a reasonable assumption to me. But even after the same doctor admitted to the same mistake in Johnston’s case, the hospital was still just as clueless as ever. In my opinion, it isn’t just the doctor who is at fault; the hospital also bears some responsibility for allowing the same mistakes to be repeated.

No woman should have her breast removed unnecessarily. That it happened to Laurie Johnston and Janice Laporte is a tragedy. The hospital, and those involved, owe it to them to make sure that it does not happen to another woman under their watch.


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Contributing Editor Sassymonkey also blogs at Sassymonkey and Sassymonkey Reads.

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