The long shadow of baby deaths

Manitoba still not ready for kids heart surgery


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They will forever be babies when they now should be adults.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/04/2015 (2729 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

They will forever be babies when they now should be adults.

It has now been 21 years since the first of 12 babies died after undergoing cardiac surgery at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg. A later inquest determined one would have died no matter where the surgery was performed, evidence was split whether a second would have lived with a more experienced medical team, and with a third it was not possible to know.

The end result is there were nine babies who didn’t survive and recover from the surgery that was supposed to save their lives.

Nine babies, if they had their surgeries elsewhere, who would now have been taking courses at a university or college, working somewhere or celebrating holidays with family.

Nine families wondering why.

Instead, nine babies tragically died because they were born when both the cardiac surgical and cardiology program were in turmoil with senior people having left and new people in key positions. On top of that, the hospital hired an inexperienced surgeon, Jonah Odim. Until he came to Winnipeg, Odim had never performed a cardiac surgery without supervision, and now he was operating at a hospital where no one was willing to pull the plug on the program because of what was felt to be a learning curve.

Is it any wonder so many babies died?

My daughter was lucky. She was born with major heart problems little more than two years after the last child had cardiac surgery in this province. Her first cardiac problem, a major artery coming from her heart deemed too narrow for her long-term survival, was so severe she needed surgery when she was just five days old.

But while Odim was already gone from Winnipeg, all of the other key medical personnel here when the babies died were still in place. As well, the inquest ordered by the provincial government to try to figure out what happened was underway.

Our daughter’s heart problems were diagnosed by the acting head of the cardiology program, a person later slammed by the inquest judge for telling the parents of the children Odim could capably perform any surgery when he knew he couldn’t.

Talk about being part of the headlines.

The provincial court judge who helmed the inquest, now Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Murray Sinclair, concluded there were too few children needing cardiac surgery in Manitoba to enable surgeons to keep their skills up. He recommended a regional program be set up with a team of surgeons flown in at times to Winnipeg for children too risky to transfer.

Sinclair said in his inquest report that the parents of the children who had died “carry the greatest burden.”

“We owe them the commitment to do all that we can to ensure that this does not happen again.”

In the two decades since, children needing open- and closed-heart surgeries have been sent to hospitals across the country, but mostly Edmonton.

Through the years we have heard whispers at times in the hallways of the hospital that some would like to see a surgical program restarted here.

In today’s Free Press you can read what some people — including parents of the children who died — think of that.

It’s not what should be done. More than a generation after the last baby died, I’m still under the firm belief the cardiac surgical program for children should never be revived here.

There are still too few kids here.

I know from experience it is difficult to put your life on hold and move to a different province for a few weeks or months while your child has surgery and recovers enough to be transferred home.

But I also know it would be far more difficult to not have a child to bring home from hospital.

And there are nine families who could tell you that.

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.

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