A British Columbia man died after doctors misdiagnosed his stage 4 cancer as constipation — twice.
Karel Pekarek had visited the Vancouver General Hospital in June of this year after weeks of experiencing stomach pain. Doctors ordered blood tests for the 75-year-old but sent him home six hours later, attributing his discomfort to constipation and advising him to take laxatives.
According to the CBC, Pekarek visited the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C. for a second opinion five days later when the pain returned. Again, doctors ordered bloodwork but sent him home with the same diagnosis: constipation.
It wasn’t until he returned to the Vancouver General on July 23 that doctors performed laparoscopic surgery and discovered the advanced gall bladder and liver cancer. Pekarek was told it was too late for radiation or chemotherapy and gave him a life expectancy of one year. He died on Oct. 12.
Pekarek and his ex-wife Chantel travelled to Rochester, N.Y. to visit their daughter Katharina Andrews, who was about to give birth to their granddaughter, Maiev. By the time Pekarek landed in New York on Aug. 6, he had grown so weak he was using a wheelchair.
Andrews and Chantal told the CBC they had discussed plans to travel to New York with Pekarek’s doctors and no medication had been prescribed.
“He never even held his granddaughter. He never had the strength. He was that sick already at that point and in so much pain,” Andrews said. “I put my arms around him and he felt so skeletal. I could see that it was really eating him and that he was in so much pain already.”
During his month long visit to Andrews, Pekarek was mostly bedridden, unable to eat or drink anything without vomiting. His family tried to find out whether or not he would be covered by insurance in the United States, hoping Pekarek could receive pain-relief medication instead of the over-the-counter Tylenol he relied on.
“My dad always took very good care of himself. And by the end of the month...he couldn’t stand at the mirror and shave himself. He had to sit down on a garbage pail,” recalled Andrews. “Mom was telling him, ‘You know, you can stay. They have the room here, it’s OK.’ And Dad just said, “No they have a newborn. I want to die at home.’ He already had it in his mind. He thought he was a burden.”
When Andrews said goodbye to her father on Aug. 31, she didn’t know it would be the last time she would see him.
“He cried. I was trying to be strong and not cry, but I was crying, too.” she said. “I wish I hugged him longer than I did. It was kind of like, ‘OK, I love you, see you again.’ My mom told me he cried the whole way to the gate.”
On the day he died, Pekarek’s ex-wife visited him before leaving to pick up their second daughter who was flying to Vancouver from Prague. Before Chantal returned from the airport, which was less than an hour away, Pekarek had died alone in the hospital bed set up in his living room.
“My dad was a heck of a man,” Andrews said. “He’s probably what all people should aspire to be like. He was always very funny, always quick-witted, good heart, very generous and cared a lot about people.”
Andrews and the rest of Pekarek’s family accept that an accurate diagnosis earlier may not have saved his life. Still, they wish there had been something they could have done to manage his pain and prevent him from suffering.
“He had a very good life,” Andrews added. “I just wish the end of it wasn’t so painful.”