‘Planning my funeral’: Mum’s six-day ordeal after bungled cancer diagnosis

A Christchurch woman has begun “planning her own funeral” after being mistakenly diagnosed with terminal cancer due to a change in medical records.

After stomach pains, exhaustion and significant weight loss in a short period of time, Toni Shields went to her GP and was referred for an ultrasound. When this showed abnormalities in her spleen, the 55-year-old was sent for a CT scan on May 22.

The next day, she was informed that she had an urgent appointment with a doctor.

“I asked, ‘How bad is it?’ What is it?’” Ms. Shields recalled in an interview with The New Zealand Herald.

“(The nurse) said, ‘All I can tell you is there are changes’.”

In a panic, Ms Shields accessed her medical records through her Manage My Health account – New Zealand’s equivalent of Australia’s My Health Record.

The documents state that she had multiple cancerous lesions on her liver and “the primary source may be the pancreas.”

“I went to the doctor and she sat me down and said, ‘Unfortunately, it’s more than likely you have cancer,'” Ms Shields said.

“It was a hard pill to swallow. I just got really worried and I had to get out of there somehow. I also spoke to someone in mental health there before I left.”

On the drive home, Mrs. Shields struggled with how to break the news to her two sons.

“Telling them was heartbreaking. My oldest looked like he had lost a lot of weight and was glued in place and just shrunk. He was so heartbroken,” she said.

“My youngest was very, very upset.”

For the next six days, Ms. Shields lived with the belief that she had a terminal illness.

“I was planning my funeral. I researched assisted dying. I wanted to get some sort of age progression pictures of my grandchildren so I could see what they would look like when they were older,” she said.

“I threw out a lot of my old stuff because I thought I wouldn’t need it.”

After going to the doctor for more blood tests, Ms Shields received another phone call from her GP: this time he told her there had been a switch and she had received someone else’s results.

“She was beside herself on the phone and couldn’t believe it had happened,” Ms Shields said of her doctor.

“I wonder, ‘What? So I’m not dying?’ She said, ‘No, you’re not going to die, Toni’.”

Instead, Ms Shields had a non-cancerous ovarian cyst. Her liver and pancreas are healthy.

Christchurch’s head of radiology also called Ms Shields to apologize and assured her a full investigation had been launched into how the incident happened.

Joanne Gibbs, interim director of Health New Zealand’s Canterbury operations, also apologized “sincerely” to Ms Shields in a statement, saying it was “very unusual for such an error to occur”.

“We are truly sorry that Toni was misdiagnosed and we apologize for the great stress we have caused both Toni and her family,” Gibbs said.

“We are carrying out a full review of how this happened to identify where improvements can be made and ensure this does not happen again in the future.

“We will continue to be in contact with Toni as the investigation into this incident continues and she is welcome to contact our radiology team with any other questions and comments she may have.”

Mrs. Shields said Herald she was still trying to figure out her feelings about the situation.

“I know I’m angry and I want to know how this happened, but I also feel really bad for the person whose results they were,” she said.

“I really, really feel for them. As I went, so do they. Of course I had a happy ending, but they didn’t.”

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