Woman dies after cancer goes untreated

20:12, Jan 23 2012
Ron Smith
FRUSTRATED: Ron Smith lost his partner Elizabeth Howan to bowel cancer. He's upset about the treatment she received from doctors before her death. Photo: MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Just a month before Elizabeth Howan died of bowel cancer, doctors were telling her the chronic pains she suffered for more than six years were in her head.

MidCentral District Health Board was remaining tight-lipped as to why a full-body MRI scan and other cancer-detecting tests were never performed on Ms Howan, but her partner of almost 30 years, Levin man Ron Smith, said the board's response was "not good enough".

Ms Howan's life began to deteriorate rapidly in 2000 when Mr Smith said she started experiencing excruciating "electric shocks" and burning sensations in her face.

Years of doctors' visits resulted in a number of illnesses being considered, but doctors were unable to reach a consensus on what was wrong.

At one point, concerned she was suffering from mercury poisoning, all of Ms Howan's teeth were removed before they discovered this wasn't the cause of her pain.

Mr Smith's own research into trigeminal neuralgia – a neuropathic disorder characterised by episodes of intense pain and burning sensations in the face – was dismissed and never tested for.

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Doctors were unable to diagnose her pain and according to her medical records, obtained by the Manawatu Standard, it was concluded she was "delusional" and "probably schizophrenic".

Mr Smith said those diagnoses could have led to her not being taken seriously when she complained of stomach pain and difficulty in making bowel movements.

Ms Howan's death certificate showed she died on January 24 last year, due to "blood loss" linked to bowel problems. Mr Smith said the first time there was any notion there may have been something wrong with her bowel was in 2006 when a GP made a note that was intended for followup.

However, that was never pursued.

About a month before she died, Ms Howan collapsed on the floor of a Feilding general practice. A GP, who later performed an examination, discovered Ms Howan had a number of polyps in her colon.

This Thursday would have been her 68th birthday, but Mr Smith said she spent the last years of her life in a rest home, unable to find peace because "she knew she was dying, and nobody was doing anything about it".

"I just feel frustrated that our complaints about her treatment were brushed off.

"They put her on every anti-psychotic drug under the sun and it never worked.

"They never actually had a clue what was wrong with her."

Research released last week from the Australian and New Zealand Faculty of Pain Medicine urged doctors to show more empathy towards patients suffering from chronic pain.

Pain Medicine Fellow Associate Professor Milton Cohen said health professionals were often challenged when confronted with a clinical problem, such as chronic pain, that they could not readily understand.

"Modern medicine is generally based on a body-mind split, where if a clinician cannot find a disease or body-related reason for the pain, they conclude it must be in a person's mind," he said.

The DHB refused to comment on whether Ms Howan could have fallen victim to this kind of scenario.

MidCentral patient safety and clinical effectiveness director Muriel Hanratty said it was a complex case.

"We will review previous work done in relation to this lady.

"Once our review is complete we will decide if any further steps need to be taken."

Manawatu Standard