Woman tells N.L. cancer inquiry of experience telling patients about test errors

Staff ~ Transcontinental Media
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ST. JOHNS, N.L. A health worker drew heavy sighs Wednesday as she told a Newfoundland inquiry about trying to call patients affected by breast cancer testing errors, not knowing if they were still alive.

Nancy Parsons, a retired patient-relations officer with the Eastern Health authority, said she learned quickly that when there was a two- or three-second pause on the other end of the phone line, she had asked for a patient who was dead.

She choked up for several seconds as she described the experience of reaching a widower of a deceased patient.

I would . . . she told the inquiry, proceed to identify myself and tell him why I was calling and ask him whether he wished to have some information regarding the retesting.

Or if I were calling with results, I would ask him, when the results were available, would he be interested in knowing what they were.

Some 386 breast cancer patients received inaccurate results from hormone receptor testing used to determine treatment options from 1997 to 2005 at a General Hospital lab in St. Johns.

A mass retesting was done at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto in the fall of 2005, but it took months, even years, for results to reach patients.

Parsons had the job, from 2005 to 2008, of calling patients about the retesting.

She wasnt the only Eastern Health staffer who inadvertently called for a breast cancer patient who had died.

We had to ask for the patient when we called, she said Wednesday. Every one of us who were calling had a similar experience.

Parsons recounted how, in many cases, she knew a patients results were back, but had to tell the patient she had nothing new to report. Thats because as a nurse, she was not allowed to disclose a change in result without authorization from a doctor.

In certain instances, while results were back, individual patients cases hadnt gone before a special tumour panel reviewing all the new results for possible treatment changes.

Well-known filmmaker Gerry Rogers, who based her award-winning 2000 film My Left Breast on her experiences with breast cancer, called in February 2006.

She had found out the previous December from her doctor, Kara Laing, that her tissue samples were being retested, but hadnt heard a word on the results.

When Rogers expressed frustration about the disorganization within Eastern Health over the handling of the patients, Parsons had no answers for her.

She was asking me big-picture questions, said Parsons. She was perfectly cordial and pleasant. She wanted me to know she was upset.

Did you know if the results were back? inquiry lawyer Bern Coffey asked.

Yes, they were, replied Parsons, who confirmed they had changed.

Parsons couldnt tell Rogers they were back since November, but forwarded a note to Laing about Rogers call and to Parsons boss Heather Predham, who was part of the tumour panel.

Organizations: General Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Toronto

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