Chch woman bought coffin, told kids she was dying after incorrect cancer diagnosis

Jacky Sinclair-Phillips, seen here with her children, was wrongly told she had terminal brain...
Jacky Sinclair-Phillips, seen here with her children, was wrongly told she had terminal brain cancer. Photo: Supplied
By Anna Sargent 

A woman whose partner was wrongly diagnosed with terminal brain cancer 15 years ago says she's horrified - but not surprised - to learn another Christchurch woman has had a similar experience.

The woman, who RNZ agreed not to name, said her late partner Jacky Sinclair-Phillips bought a coffin and told her kids she was going to die before the error was revealed.

The woman is speaking out after hearing the story of Toni Shields, who started planning her funeral after being told it was likely she had pancreatic cancer, only to learn a week later, that it was a mistake.

Shields was devastated when she was told on 22 May she that she likely had terminal cancer following a CT scan, and had to go through the heartbreaking process of telling her children she believed she was going to die.

"That broke my heart and it broke their hearts. It's just all the 'what ifs' that I'm quite angry about- what if I'd taken my own life? There's so many things that went through my head in that week," she said.

It was a week before Shields was told that someone else's images had been uploaded to her file and she was not terminally ill.

"I was happy and angry... I asked 'what about the patient whose results they were for? Did they get mine? Have they been thinking they're okay for a week?' I'm just flabbergasted as to how it happened, and why," she said.

Another Christchurch woman revealed that she had a similar experience with her late partner Jacky Sinclair-Phillips in 2009, who was told she had just days to live.

"It was horrific, and makes me tear up 15 years later. She'd accepted her fate 'I'm going to be dead in the next 48 hours'," the woman said.

She said Sinclair-Phillips was being treated for bladder cancer, but after a scan at Christchurch Hospital was wrongly told she also had terminal brain cancer.

"So then it was action stations of course - we had to tell our kids, I had to tell big whānau Māori and big whānau otherwise, people in Australia and all around New Zealand: 'If you want to see her alive you're going to have to be quick because she's got brain cancer and she's going to die'. We had family turning up from all over New Zealand. We bought a coffin."

But the couple were told the following week that doctors had misdiagnosed fluid build-up in Sinclair-Phillips' brain as cancer, she said.

They complained to the Health and Disability Commission and she said they received an apology from Christchurch Hospital after an investigation.

The woman said she was moved hearing Shields' story, especially the parallels in telling children the terrible news.

"I just thought: 'Oh it's still happening' .... The thing is, you tell a five-year-old and nine-year-old their parent is going to die in a few days, well sadly subsequently she [Jacky] did end up dying five to six months later from a completely different cancer that was unrelated, but telling them again there was this kind of false hope that maybe it was wrong in the kids' heads."

Patient Voice Aotearoa chairperson Malcolm Mulholland said mistakes in diagnosing terminal illnesses were unacceptable.

Patients who were misdiagnosed deserved a full explanation, he said.

"We live in New Zealand, we're supposed to be a developed country with pretty robust health systems and processes in place," Mulholland said.

Shields received an apology from Health New Zealand, but was expecting an investigation into her misdiagnosis to take up to a month.

In a statement, Health New Zealand Interim Canterbury Group Director Operations Joanne Gibbs said the error occurred when incorrect images were loaded onto Shield's file on 22 May.

"We notified Toni's GP of the associated incorrect report as soon as we became aware of the issue on May 29, 2024 and our staff have also spoken with her directly," she said.

"It is extremely unusual for an error like this to be made. We are undertaking a full review of how this occurred to identify where improvements can be made and ensure this does not happen again in the future."

Sinclair-Phillips' partner said her heart went out to anyone who had been through the same thing.

"It happens and it's not good enough, it changes lives. My children's lives have been forever changed because of that. Particularly the five-year-old is very wary of hospitals... there's ongoing pain and trauma that happens from things like this.'"

Health New Zealand spokesperson Joanne Gibbs said the organisation apologised for the confusion and distress it caused Jacky Sinclair-Phillips and her family during her treatment.

Gibbs said Sinclair-Phillip's partner's complaint to the HDC was fully investigated.

"We would like her family to know that in the years since her passing in 2010, we have made changes to improve how our patients and their families experience the health system. We know that stronger partnerships with patients and patient and family-centred care lead to improved outcomes for those in our care.

"One issue identified in the complaint related to how the findings of a Radiology examination were communicated to Jacky by the clinicians involved in her care. There was no error by Radiology, either in the imaging process or actual report itself. While we acknowledge the significant distress caused to both families, the two cases are not related."