Painful memories come flooding back as Linde Feakes sits in the gallery of a Winnipeg courtroom, listening to testimony at the inquest into the death of her son Ashton at 15 months. “I want to get all the information that I can, for my own peace of mind,” she whispers. “At first we thought it was God’s will that we lost our baby. Now, we’re thinking maybe it wasn’t God’s will, and we’re wondering if our son had to die.”
Ashton was one of 12 babies who died in 1994 following high-risk heart surgery at the Health Sciences Centre, Winnipeg’s largest hospital.
Twelve deaths occurred during 32 operations—a fatality rate so high that a department committee suspended the hospital’s pediatric cardiac unit in December, 1994, and called in specialists from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to investigate. After reading the report by Dr.
William Williams and Dr. Larry Roy in February, 1995, the hospital’s administration cancelled all highrisk infants’ heart surgery. And last week, the inquest under chief provincial court Judge Murray
Sinclair began its hearings into 92 deaths of babies from 1981 to 1994. The proceedings are expected to last 10 months.
The inquest heard troubling stories about chaos and confusion in the operating room. Jim Rodger, assistant to the hospital’s president, testified that infighting among operating room staff, including a work stoppage by anesthetists in May, 1994, went unreported to administrators until early 1995. The testimony followed equally disturbing evidence revealed in the report by Williams and Roy. In their examination, the Toronto doctors interviewed members of the cardiac unit. One account, written for Williams and Roy by nurses, was especially critical of the program’s chief surgeon, Dr. Jonah Odim. Odim and his assistant, Dr. B. J. Hancock, according to that account, “were very disorganized and panicky. They argued with each other and grabbed the cannula [a tube that routes blood from the
heart back to the body] and instruments from each other. It was very obvious that neither one had the skill or expertise to handle the situation.” Some nurses said they felt “physically ill on thinking of coming to work when there is a fresh cardiac patient.” (Odim and Hancock are expected to give their version of events later in the inquest)
The Williams-Roy report questioned Odim’s technical competence and found numerous flaws in the cardiac program. “There is a ‘crisis of confidence’ which will not vanish overnight,” the doctors wrote.
“This program was poorly supported by the institution from the outset. Complex cases, unfamiliar equipment and support staff produced a recipe for derailment”
For parents, hearing such evidence has been difficult. “We asked a lot of questions before the operation, but we didn’t think to ask if the doctors and nurses were fighting during the operation,” Feakes said in an interview last
week. "We assumed they knew what they were doing. Our son had his operation in November. II they had told us about the prob lems they were having before that, we would
The inquest began only because of pressure from distraught parents. “They knew there was something wrong,” said David Chomiak, a New Democratic Party member of Manitoba’s legislature, “and they screamed so loudly that the government had to call the inquest.” Feakes and other parents who lost children watched last week from cloth-covered metal chairs at the back of the room. Feakes said it is sad that her nine-month-old daughter, Alicia, will never know her brother, Ashton. “She’s wearing his clothes now, so in a sense, his memory is living on through her,” Feakes said. “I know I can never get my son back, but in his honor I’m going to keep on fighting to make sure we find out what went wrong, and that it never happens again.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.