Mistaken mastectomy victim sues for $2.2M

A woman who underwent an unnecessary mastectomy at a Windsor, Ont., hospital is suing the hospital, the surgeon who performed the operation and another local hospital for a total $2.2 million.

A woman who underwent an unnecessary mastectomy at a Windsor, Ont., hospital is suing the hospital, the surgeon who performed the operation and another local hospital for a total $2.2 million.

The suit filed by Laurie Johnston names Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital, Leamington District Memorial Hospital and Dr. Barbara Heartwell.

Speaking at her lawyer's office in Toronto on Wednesday, Johnston said she has a history of breast cancer in her family. Both her mother and her sister had the disease.

"I know cancer can kill," said the 44-year-old single mother of two. "For that reason, I go regularly for mammograms."

Last summer, after a lump was discovered, Johnston was told by Heartwell that she had cancer. In November, she had her left breast and six lymph nodes removed.

After the surgery, Johnston said she experienced swelling and weakness in her left arm. 

Two weeks later, Heartwell told her she "did not have cancer and never had cancer."

It was an error that Johnston says should have been caught before the surgery.

Another doctor had given Johnston the initial diagnosis of cancer, but a pre-surgery pathology report showed she did not have cancer.

Heartwell misread that final report and proceeded with the mastectomy on Nov. 5, 2009.

Hôtel-Dieu Grace Hospital officials said Heartwell only discovered her mistake when doing a post-surgery report. Since then, Heartwell has voluntarily stopped performing surgeries.

In a response to Johnson's statement, the hospital reiterated its initial apology.

"We are profoundly sorry that this tragic situation has occurred, and we know this is an extremely difficult time for Ms. Johnson," said the hospital's CEO, Warren Chant.

"When we learned of Laurie's case, we reached out to her and her family to provide her with support and assistance, and we will continue to do so."

Multiple investigations underway

Several investigations have been launched — by the Ontario government, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario and the hospital itself. They'll be investigating Johnston's case as well as that of Janice Laporte of Sarnia, whose breast was removed by Heartwell at Hôtel-Dieu Grace in September 2001 and who also did not have cancer. 

The government investigation will focus not only on Hôtel-Dieu Grace but also Windsor Regional Hospital and Leamington District Memorial Hospital.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons is investigating Heartwell and pathologist Dr. Olive Williams.

Hôtel-Dieu Grace has launched an internal review into cases involving Heartwell in addition to a pathology review already underway since November.

The hospital's pathology review will look at more than 15,000 cases dating back to August 2003, when Williams was hired to work at the region's laboratory partner, Windsor Essex Pathology Associates.

Ontario's medical regulatory body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, has also launched its own probe.

Hôtel-Dieu Grace suspended pathologist Williams on Jan. 4 and reported her to the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Johnston's lawyer says the suit is an attempt to seek justice so that other women don't have to go through the same experience that Johnston did.

With files from The Canadian Press