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Canada: courageous canary
  1. Gorgina Lovell
  1. Vancouver, BC, Canada; ginny{at}

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    20 March 2002—a date Heather Crowe would like to forget, but never will. A 57 year old grandmother, Heather had consulted her physician about mysterious lumps on the right side of her neck, possibly an ear infection, easily treated with antibiotics. At the follow up appointment for test results, on the above date, the news of Heather’s condition ambushed and assaulted her: locally advanced adenocarcinoma of the left upper lobe of her lung, a condition her enlarged lymph nodes, now cancerous, could no longer hide. Another word attached itself to her prognosis: inoperable. Heather’s stage 3B lung cancer offers a 15% chance of being alive five years from the date of diagnosis. Her doctors advised that without treatment she had 10 months to live. With radiation and chemotherapy she could buy some time. Three subsequent biopsies confirmed doctors’ suspicions: secondhand smoke was the causative factor of her lung tumour.

    Heather never smoked, nor lived with anyone who smoked, but worked for 40 years as a waitress in restaurants where smoking had been permitted. “The air in that restaurant was blue with cigarette smoke,” she recalled. “We didn’t like it, but we had no idea how dangerous it was. Anyone who doesn’t think secondhand smoke kills can just ask me. I want to be the last person to die from secondhand smoke at work. I am the canary in the coal mine for the hospitality industry.”

    Brought up to do the right thing and not to be afraid of telling the truth, Heather’s sapphire blue eyes cloud with sorrow and pain when she talks of the suffering lung cancer causes, and briefly flash with anger when she remembers the tobacco lobbyist who told her he had never seen a death certificate of anyone who had died from secondhand smoke. She made a public promise that he will, in due course, receive a hand delivered copy of hers.

    The Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board accepted her claim, the first of its kind acknowledging tobacco smoke caused injury in the workplace. She received C$40 000 compensation and lives on C$220 a week. During this intensely personal time Heather Crowe could maximise her remaining days with her beloved daughter and granddaughter. Instead, she chooses to represent the Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada as an unpaid volunteer when she implores legislators from coast to coast to protect all workers (not just government officials in high rise offices) from the avoidable workplace hazard known as tobacco smoke pollution.

    Heather left school at around 15 and says she represents countless hospitality workers with minimal training, families to feed, and limited career choices. When diagnosed, Heather worked 60 hour weeks and earned C$12 000 a year as a waitress. Since the Ottawa smoking ban in August 2002, her former employer’s business has increased by 40%. She ruefully observes the ban arrived too late to help her.

    Following publicity about her case, a stranger telephoned Heather, saying he wanted to interview and film her for a documentary. When she met him, she got the impression he feared she would change her mind. After an in-depth interview, he advised Heather her story lacked sufficient interest for his alleged proposed documentary, and the apparently real reason for his visit began to surface. He asked how she would respond if someone offered her a lot of money for exclusive rights to her story? He mentioned treatment at the Mayo Clinic, new, expensive drugs to treat lung cancer, and taking care of her every need and those of her family when her “time came”. True to character, she ordered him out of her house and advised him that further contact would be filtered through her lawyer. She heard no more about the documentary, nor about the offer of money and treatment. Who would benefit from Heather not telling her story?

    Heather meets legislators and occupational health and safety officials as time permits between radiation, chemotherapy, and the increasing need for rest as her condition deteriorates. Tobacco apologists have labelled her the “anti-smoking poster girl”. Had she been given a choice, Heather would have preferred a life of frugal obscurity planning her retirement instead of what has been imposed on her: finalising her will, and planning her funeral.