Health

Why babies died

A Winnipeg inquest finds a young surgeon was not ready for critical heart procedures

Bud Robertson December 11 2000
Health

Why babies died

A Winnipeg inquest finds a young surgeon was not ready for critical heart procedures

Bud Robertson December 11 2000

Why babies died

Health

A Winnipeg inquest finds a young surgeon was not ready for critical heart procedures

Ashton Feakes was a happy baby boy whose chubby cheeks were magnets to the fingers of complete strangers. He died in 1994 at the age of one year, three months and 26 days after surgery at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre to correct a defective heart. Six years later, following the longest inquest in Canadas history, a damning report on the deaths of Ashton and 11 other children at the hospital over a nine-month period has finally been released. The lives of Ashton and eight of the others might have been saved, concluded Associate Chief Judge Murray Sinclair of the provincial court, if the hospital had recognized the limitations of its surgical staff and, in some cases, had the children operated on elsewhere. For Ashtons parents, it was a grim finding, but certainly no surprise. “It confirmed what we suspected,” says Ashton’s mother, Linde Feakes, as her husband, John, bounces one of their three young children on his lap in their modest Winnipeg home.

Sinclair’s 502-page report, released last week, contains horrific accounts of botched procedures and infighting among staff that emerged during 2 lh years of testimony from almost 100 witnesses. At the heart of the storm was Dr. Jonah Odim, who trained at the

University of Chicago, Yale, McGill and Harvard. Odim’s appointment to the Winnipeg hospital—to restart the pediatric cardiac surgery program after its former surgeon had left the province seven months earlier—was his first job.

The inexperienced Odim was captain of the operating room team for nine months until mortality rates and animosity forced the hospital to shut down the surgery in December, 1994. He now works as a research associate at the UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles. Odim

has not responded to interview requests since the release of the report. But during six weeks of testimony in the course of the inquest, he said the deaths did not shake his confidence. “In any centre, you’re going to go through periods when you’ll see clusters of deaths,” he testified. “The deaths didn’t reflect the inability of the team or myself as surgeon.”

Odim said he was confident in the early going that problems would be ironed out and “things would get better over time.” They didn’t. Last week, the College of Physicians and Surgeons

of Manitoba pledged to investigate every doctor named in Sinclair’s report, including Odim and Dr. Niels Giddins, a cardiologist who continually referred patients to Odim. He now works as a pediatric cardiologist in Brown Mills, N.J. That investigation could take years, given that the report named 17 doctors who worked in or oversaw the program.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the hospital, meanwhile, have apologized to the families of the 12 babies who died. Last week, they began the task of reviewing the 36 recommendations contained in Sinclair’s report. Among them: the passage of whistleblowing legislation to encourage doctors, nurses and other health professionals to speak out about problems they see on the wards. Although nurses in the pediatric cardiac surgery program raised legitimate concerns about the program, the report says they were largely ignored.

Administrators and doctors are still paying litde attention to nurses’ concerns, says Maureen Hancharyk, president of the Manitoba Nurses’ Union. “For Gods sake,” she says, “they have to start listening.” Dr. Brock Wright, vice-president and chief medical officer for the health authority, says the organization has already made improvements to the hospital system and is open to others. “I think,” says Wright, “that positive things will definitely come from this report.”

There is now the thorny question of compensation for the families. Four have already lodged suits against Odim, but others say they can’t afford lengthy civil litigation. Manitoba Health Minister David Chomiak says he is willing to meet with the parents, but has not committed the province to compensation beyond their legal bills for the inquest. Glancing towards a photo album of Ashton, Linde Feakes says money couldn’t possibly make up for the agony she and her family have gone through. But she is counting on the report’s recommendations to make a difference for other families whose children need medical care. “It will never right the wrongs,” she says, “but it will prevent more wrongs.”

Bud Robertson in Winnipeg