Woman sues surgeon, hospital over mistaken mastectomy
TORONTO - A woman whose healthy breast was removed by a doctor in the mistaken belief it was cancerous is suing for the devastation she says the unnecessary surgery has caused her.
Laurie Johnston, of Leamington, Ont., is seeking $2.2 million in damages amid several investigations into how she and at least one other woman became surgical victims.
"Sometimes, I'm alone and I just sit there and think about it, and I start to cry," Johnston said Wednesday.
"If I'm not crying, I'm angry, anxious. I'm having a hard time dealing with those emotions."
Johnston's lawsuit names her surgeon, Dr. Barbara Heartwell, pathologist Dr. Olive Williams as well as Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor, Ont., where the surgery took place, and the Leamington District Memorial Hospital.
The suit, filed Tuesday in Ontario Superior Court in Windsor, seeks $1 million in general and special damages for her physical and emotional distress, along with punitive and aggravated damages of another $1 million.
Johnston's two daughters and sister are seeking another $220,000 in damages.
The suit alleges the healthy mother had her left breast and six lymph nodes removed based on Heartwell's negligent cancer diagnosis.
The suit also claims that Williams' pathology report, which concluded she did not have cancer, was confusing and contributed to the misdiagnosis.
Unknown to Johnston, a radiologist also concluded days before the surgery that she did not have cancer, but that report appears to have also gone unheeded.
None of the allegations in the lawsuit have been proven in court.
As her lawyer looked on at a news conference, Johnston recalled her shock and confusion at hearing from Heartwell about two weeks after the operation that she had been cancer-free all along.
"I'm sorry. I made a mistake. I did not read the (pathology) report fully," Johnston cited Heartwell as saying.
The hospital has previously said Heartwell misread the report.
Heartwell could not immediately be reached for comment, and her lawyer, Andrea Plumb, said Wednesday she would not be in a position to discuss the case for at least a week.
In a statement, Hotel-Dieu CEO Warren Chant said the hospital was "profoundly sorry that this tragic situation has occurred" and would take advice about the suit from its lawyers.
Chant said hospital staff had "reached out" to Johnston, something she said at the news conference had made her uncomfortable because she felt they were simply "digging" for information.
Johnston said her physical and emotional state has left her unable to work at the factory job she held. She has also become withdrawn, she said.
Johnston's case, and that of Janice Laporte, whose healthy breast was removed by Heartwell at the same hospital in September 2001, have prompted a series of investigations.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty called it "horrific" the two women had their breasts removed unnecessarily.
"We owe it to all Ontario women, these are our mothers and our sisters and our daughters, to ensure that we get to the bottom of this," McGuinty said Wednesday.
Laporte filed a now concluded lawsuit in 2002. She said she could not discuss the case because of a confidentiality clause.
The Ontario government, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and Hotel-Dieu Hospital have all launched investigations into pathology or Heartwell.
The hospital is probing Heartwell's past cases as well as conducting a pathology review.
Williams and Heartwell are both under investigation by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
Hotel-Dieu suspended Williams's privileges in January. Heartwell has voluntarily stopped performing surgeries.
Johnston's lawyer, Barbara MacFarlane, said both hospitals were aware of problems with Williams' reports as well as with Heartwell's record and should have prevented Johnston's surgery.
The hospitals are also reviewing 3,500 of the highest risk cases first and have so far looked at 1,100, with no further discoveries affecting treatment, other than seven initially announced, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.
The remaining high-risk cases are expected to be reviewed within the next three weeks, at which time the hospitals will turn to cases with no implications on treatment.
A hotline set up last week by Hotel-Dieu had fielded 222 calls by Tuesday afternoon.
A review started five years ago found that discredited Ontario pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, once considered a leading forensic expert, had made mistakes in 20 cases that cast doubt on several criminal convictions.
The findings sparked a public inquiry into Smith's work that recommended greater oversight for pathologists.
Also, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador recently approved a $17.5-million settlement in a class-action lawsuit launched by hundreds of patients whose breast cancer tests were botched.
Another pathologist at Grey Bruce Health Services in Owen Sound, Ont., was asked to leave his job two years ago after an unacceptably high number of errors surfaced in a review of his work, including missed cancers.
A Toronto-based medical advocacy and consulting group, Best Doctors Canada, said the experiences show the need for obtaining second opinions.
"On average, 22 per cent of the time, the initial diagnosis is incorrect," Dianne Carmichael, the group's CEO, said Wednesday.
Carmichael said the rate of misdiagnosis, based on exhaustive reviews, is not unique to Canada and can climb to about half for certain types of cancer.