Eight-year-old Andrew Sheldrick was incredibly shy, yet emotionally hyperaware. His mother, Melissa, recalls a time he walked up to another boy in the playground who looked like he was having a bad day.
“Hey dude, I’m Andrew. Let’s go play!”
Andrew loved playing video games on his Xbox, snacking on red bell peppers, and waking up at the crack of dawn regardless of when he went to bed. Until Sunday, March 13, 2016, when he didn’t wake up.
Melissa Sheldrick’s easy smile and jovial tone would trick anyone into thinking she’s had the easiest time in life. In reality, she has been through one of the most excruciating human experiences a person can go through. Today, Melissa is best known for her patient advocacy work. She chooses to share some of the most personal and painful memories in hopes of saving other families from the fate hers went through a few years ago.
Andrew was on a prescription medication called Tryptophan for his Parasomnia, a sleep disorder that affects the nervous system during sleep. In Andrew, the disorder prevented him from sleeping through the night. Since Andrew was young, his physician prescribed a liquid form of the medication rather than the prescribed five-tablet dose, which can be difficult for a child to swallow.
The pharmacist reached for the wrong bottle when preparing Andrew’s refill. Instead of Tryptophan, they had accidentally reached for and liquified Baclofen — a skeletal muscle relaxant. The dosage Andrew took on the evening of March 12 was five times the concentration of Baclofen considered lethal for an adult. He passed away in his sleep that night.
The world came crashing down on the Sheldrick family because of a single pharmacy error. After a rigmarole of police investigation, research, and help from community members, Melissa came to learn that there was no accountability for pharmacists or pharmacies to report any errors they made. Errors that were sometimes fatal — like in Andrew’s case. If there was no reporting mechanism — how could the system ever improve?
The pharmacist reached for the wrong bottle when preparing Andrew’s refill. The dosage Andrew took on the evening of March 12 was five times the concentration considered lethal for an adult.
Armed with a mission and an especially painful story of a loss, Melissa started a petition on Change.org pleading Eric Hoskins, then the Minister of Health in the Province of Ontario, to mandate pharmacies report their errors to a third-party for aggregation and analysis. Melissa’s work to make pharmacy error reporting a reality has already come a long way. Pharmacy Associations in the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick now mandate all pharmacists to report all errors in their workplace. She continues to speak at pharmacy association events, universities, and healthcare conferences to help healthcare providers understand the patient perspective.
Melissa and I chatted over dinner, where she patiently started from the beginning of Andrew’s story and answered all my questions with exquisite grace and composure. When I ask her if it was painful sharing this particular period in her life over and over again, her response surprised me.
“This is Andrew’s story. I’m merely a vessel,” she replied with a smile.
Melissa’s drive to improve the healthcare system for everyone is at once inspiring and deeply moving. “The worst someone can say is no. I can deal with that,” she quips, brushing aside my compliments of her persistence.
Melissa, her husband, and her daughter went through months of rehab and trauma therapy after Andrew’s passing. During this journey, they encountered countless other families that went through similar experiences.
“I can’t explain it. It’s like being in a club you would never wish on anyone. But talking to people who have lost a child and gone through the same mental and physical pain is extremely special. We have so much power to change the way the system works.”
Six months after Andrew passed, the family dog became ill and Melissa was forced to put it down.
“I experienced so much loss in such a short time,” she recalls.
But it was through her loss that Melissa developed resolve and determination — and drove her to challenging the systems that let her down, so other parents would never have to experience the same pain.
“It’s like being in a club you would never wish on anyone. But talking to people who have lost a child and gone through the same mental and physical pain is extremely special. We have so much power to change the way the system works.”
“When that happened, I swore I would never get another pet. It was too much,” Melissa tells me just as she takes out her phone to show me photos of the family’s new one-year-old puppy.
I’ve never met anyone like Melissa. She chooses to walk into things she knows will hurt. Spending all her free time advocating for her son and rehashing painful memories every time, getting another family dog after going through the pain of putting their last one down. When I ask her what makes her that way, she laughs.
“It’s like I have ‘sucker’ written all over me!”
This is part of Dot Health’s #HealthStories series, where we highlight individuals from across Canada and their experience with the healthcare system in Canada as a patient, caregiver, or advocate.
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