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Husband of misdiagnosed cancer patient wants change in health system

Michelle Dykstra sought cancer treatment in Thailand with her husband, Chris Peterson. PHOTO/FILE




The husband of a Masterton woman whose terminal breast cancer was misdiagnosed says there is no accountability in the health system.

Michelle Dykstra came to her general practitioner in October 2018 with a golf-ball-sized lump on her breast.

Her husband, Chris Peterson, said the GP was adamant it was breast cancer and referred her to the clinic in Hutt Hospital.

He said after a biopsy, the head of the clinic told them, “Good news, it’s not cancer. It’s a plasma cell mastitis.”

After two months of intense pain and changing bandages multiple times a day due to fluid build-up, oncologists performed a second biopsy in December.

The results found stage three breast cancer [treatable]. However, it was later reclassified as terminal.

Dykstra and Peterson requested an investigation from the Health and Disability Commissioner before she died in 2019.

The investigation’s result was released earlier this week.

Commissioner Morag McDowell found the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa District Health Boards [DHBs] had breached the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers’ Rights after multiple failures caused intense suffering and delayed diagnosis.

Peterson said Hutt Hospital had written off his wife’s case as plasma cell mastitis before they had arrived.

“It was all based on opinion. They had already decided it was an infection before they saw her.”

Several faults were found in the health system, including the misdiagnosis and failure to perform a second biopsy when cancer did not show on the first scan.

Peterson said watching his wife dosed up on morphine and in intense pain for months was torture.

McDowell’s recommendations included Wairarapa having a dedicated specialty nurse coordinator to maintain continuity of care for general surgery patients in the region. She also recommended a ‘red flag system’ for abnormal results.

Hutt Valley DHB told the commissioner it would develop comprehensive protocols for its symptomatic services. The DHB was updating its memorandum of understanding with Wairarapa to include models of care for breast cancer transfer and management.

Despite the investigation, Peterson was sceptical that the health system would change after his wife’s experience.

The investigation’s report said Hutt Valley DHB had apologised, but Peterson said he was still waiting.

“I’ve had an apology from Wairarapa but nothing from Hutt Valley.

“I don’t want anyone to go through what Michelle went through. There’s no need in this day and age.”

He said there was a lack of accountability from hospitals and ACC.

“The fact they can cock up that badly and just say oops.”

Peterson was pleased the commissioner saw the case, as she only investigated 1-2 per cent of cases.

He had also fought with the ACC for compensation for the costs of dressings and treatments.

The treatment injury claim was denied because the patient’s cancer was terminal, regardless of the delay in diagnosis.

He said he would continue to push for ACC to change its stance on their claim.

After his wife’s experience, Peterson wanted to see a change in the health system’s approach to diagnosing serious illnesses.

“If [the symptom] doesn’t fit their criteria, [hospital clinicians] move it to one side. They get away with it, time and time again.

“I want each patient to be taken on their merit, not fobbed off like we were.”


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