More below • Reporter Lindsay Jones on The Decibel
The chatter froze inside the car as it drew near the abandoned Springdale Cottage Hospital on the edge of Green Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador. Ruth Lush averted her eyes as the SUV passed the three-storey building in May of this year. “This is where my life changed forever,” she said, tears spilling behind her dark glasses.
Mrs. Lush, 73, had arrived at the cottage hospital, now closed, more than half a century earlier – pregnant and carrying a white suitcase. On the morning of Sept. 24, 1969, just before dawn, she gave birth to a baby girl who she called Dora Arlene Lush, named after a cousin.
On one of the days Mrs. Lush spent recuperating in the hospital, a nurse handed her a bundle. She gazed at the child. This wasn’t the same baby she had cuddled and kissed the day before. It didn’t even smell like her baby.
“Oh yes, that is your baby,” Mrs. Lush recalled the nurse assuring her. “They change overnight. Their hair colour changes and everything. They look a lot different.”
Mrs. Lush peered at the infant: I guess the baby did change, she thought.
She returned to her home in the fishing town of Triton, believing the baby she brought with her was her biological child. But once in a while, maybe every few months, something deep in her cells told her she was missing her baby.
Over the years, she confided this gut feeling to her sister and a cousin. Later, she told her eldest daughter and her niece. She tried to talk to her husband Wilfred, but he would hear none of it.
At their little white house on Badger Bay, Arlene was markedly different from the Lushes’ other two daughters. She was stubborn with red hair and freckles, while the others were blonde, milk-skinned and mild-mannered, hopping up to do the dishes without complaint when their mother asked.
One day, when Arlene was around age 11, Mrs. Lush raised the idea of a paternity test to her and Mr. Lush, but they both refused. So she dropped it. But she didn’t forget. At night she sometimes asked God if she had another daughter out there. “Protect her. Watch over her,” she prayed from her bed overlooking the bay.
It was just a mother’s intuition – one that without any proof was only that. But more than five decades after giving birth, the proof would find her.
It was lightly snowing in Yellowknife when Caroline Weir-Greene saw the e-mail pop into her inbox in January. It was the results of the genealogy kit her husband had given her for Christmas.
A small part of Ms. Weir-Greene had always wondered about her lineage. She knew her mother was really an aunt who adopted her as an infant, but growing up, her three older sisters had always pointed out how different she was from them. She was a flaxen-haired goody-two-shoes raised among a pack of wild brunettes. The sisters used to taunt her: Maybe their dad wasn’t really her dad. It had been a few years since Ms. Weir-Greene’s father had died so she thought, “Well, why not?”
Ms. Weir-Greene, a health care administrator, clicked the e-mail. A curious list of surnames appeared, none of which belonged to people in her family. They looked to be from Triton, a town more than an hour away from where she’d grown up in the small community of Beachside. That’s weird, she thought. Even more weird was she had what appeared to be a full sister living in Halifax.
Ms. Weir-Greene sent a message to her and the woman instantly replied with a question. “Were you born September 24, 1969 at the Springdale Cottage Hospital?”
“Yes!” Ms. Weir-Greene wrote back.
“I think I need to call you,” replied the woman, who was Mrs. Lush’s eldest daughter. (She did not wish to be interviewed or identified.)
Not long after, she and her other sister called their parents. She asked if they remembered that she had done an AncestryDNA kit. “Did you find her?” Mrs. Lush replied. “Thank God. Thank God. I prayed for all these years that I’d still be alive when you found her.”
As the news sunk in, Mrs. Lush started to shake. She learned that her biological daughter had been raised in a fishing hamlet an hour away, and that Arlene’s birth parents were both dead. Mrs. Lush stood, staggering around the kitchen in shock.
She looked up Ms. Weir-Greene on social media and stared at the photos of her lost daughter: as a plum-cheeked toddler in front of the Christmas tree; with cornsilk bangs and wide blue eyes in a school portrait; on her wedding day in a periwinkle sleeveless dress. Mrs. Lush wanted to reach through the photos and squeeze her. It was a relief to see her daughter had a good life, but she also felt despair. She and her baby had lived a world apart.
That night, Mrs. Lush messaged Arlene and asked her to call. “I just heard news about what I’ve been saying all your life,” Mrs. Lush told her when they connected by phone. “After all those years, it turned out I was right.”
Arlene, stunned, slid to the kitchen floor of her home in Golden, B.C. “Do you know if my mom and dad are alive?” she asked.
“I don’t think they are, Arlene,” Mrs. Lush said.
Over the next week, Mrs. Lush couldn’t stop weeping. Her sobbing carried on so loud and so long that her grandson, whose room is next to hers, started sleeping on the sofa.
An active woman who volunteers with the church and her son Jason’s special needs recreation group, she struggled to stick to her daily routines of caring for others.
That winter, her only reprieve was to focus on preparing to meet her new daughter. She disappeared into her small sewing room off the kitchen, beavering like a mother in the days leading up to giving birth, desperate to get a quilt made in time for Ms. Weir-Green’s arrival from Yellowknife that spring. “A daughter is a blessing,” Mrs. Lush embroidered in pink. “Made with love for sweet Caroline 2022.”
Like any news in a small town, word of the switch spread fast. Others started to share their own bewildering experiences at the Springdale Cottage Hospital. Outside a breakfast fundraiser one morning, Mrs. Lush heard the story of Joan Budgell, who was confused when a nurse handed her a pink bundle.
“I had a boy,” she says she told the nurse, joking that she had wanted a girl but didn’t get one. At first, she said the nurse didn’t believe her, but eventually disappeared to investigate and returned a short time later with Mrs. Budgell’s son.
Another time, Mrs. Lush was shopping for groceries when a lady who knew about the switch shared that another Triton woman, Jenetta Burton, who is no longer alive, was also given the wrong baby at the Springdale Cottage Hospital. She was given a girl, when in fact she had a boy, confirmed her daughter Betty Snow.
Then a family member told Mrs. Lush about another mix-up in their extended family, which was immediately apparent, and fixed, because the baby the nurse gave the woman looked so different from her own. (Neither woman would discuss it with The Globe.)
“Oh my God, how widespread is this?” Mrs. Lush wondered. “How many times has this happened and nobody knows anything about it?”
Newfoundland’s cottage hospital system was once touted as the new dawn of health care, providing hospital care and doctors to the scattered rural communities that wrap around the province’s rugged coast. For many people living in the hundreds of outport fishing communities, going to the cottage hospital was the first time they had ever seen a doctor or a nurse.
People paid a small subscription fee for access to hospital and medical services, part of a progressive form of publicly-funded medicine that predated similar initiatives in Canada, according to medical historian Heidi Coombs of Memorial University. “It was one of the earliest forms of socialized medicine in North America,” she said.
Many women sought maternity care year after year at the same cottage hospitals, strategically placed to serve many different communities. During their operation between 1936 and 1977, thousands of babies were born in them, added Dr. Coombs. The last of the 19 cottage hospitals to open was Springdale Cottage Hospital in 1952.
It was the middle of the night on Sept. 24, 1969, when Jessie Rowsell, a 31-year-old woman from Beachside, arrived at the Springdale Cottage Hospital, according to birth records shared with The Globe and Mail.
Ms. Rowsell, a free-spirited woman who partied hard and fished with the men, delivered a baby girl just after 5 a.m. At the same time, Ruth Lush was in the throes of labour, according to her hospital birth records. An hour and 15 minutes later, Mrs. Lush’s daughter took her first breath of air. The babies both had blonde hair and blue eyes. There was just an ounce difference in their weight.
In the room where the babies were born, a nurse was supposed to write the name on a plastic identity bracelet and snap it on the baby’s ankle, said Rita Rideout, who was a 23-year-old navy-trained nurse who worked at the Springdale Cottage Hospital at the time of the mistake. Then the baby was taken to the nursery to be cleaned and weighed.
“We’re talking about 20 steps down the hall,” said Mrs. Rideout, whose maiden name appears on both women’s birth records. There was a container of identity bracelets in the nursery as well, in case one fell off, which sometimes happened, she added. The nurse in the delivery room who recorded the births and weights of both babies was Verna Pike, according to the birth records that were shared with The Globe. Ms. Pike declined to comment for this article.
Back then, new mothers stayed in the hospital for three to four days after giving birth, resting in one of the 10 beds in the women’s ward. The babies slept in a small closed-door nursery with six bassinets down the hall, tended to by a rotating crew of registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants. Every three to four hours the babies were taken out of the nursery to be cared for by their mothers.
The two mothers were discharged three days later at the same time, by the same head nurse, according to their birth records. The head nurse, Grace Brett, is no longer alive. The doctor, Frank Akerman, whose name also appears on the birth records, did not respond to requests for an interview from The Globe.
It’s impossible to know exactly when, over those three days, the switch occurred but one possibility is that the babies’ identity bands somehow became mixed up, said some of the nurses who worked there at the time.
Like many who hear the story of the switch for the first time, Mrs. Rideout, now retired, was shocked to hear of the mistake. Still, she said there were times when identity bracelets were found among the receiving blankets when nurses unwrapped a baby to change it. “Bracelets do slip off. They do,” she said. “I’d always make sure another was put back on.”
Valerie Combden, another nurse who worked there at the time, said the only way she could see a switch happening is if the identity band slipped off the leg and somehow became mixed up.
“I suppose things can happen anywhere, but I’m really, really surprised to hear something like that happened there,” she said. “I can’t imagine the trauma that the poor parents are going through. My deepest thoughts and prayers will go out to them because it’s terrible.”
While switched-at-birth cases are rare, they aren’t unheard of in Canada. In 2015 and 2016, two separate cases came to light at a federally-run northern Manitoba hospital in the 1970s.
In response, Health Canada offered free DNA testing to people born at the hospital in that period and ordered an independent investigation, which found the switches were accidental and a result of not following standard identification procedures.
The RCMP also investigated and found no criminal wrongdoing. The federal government provided the Manitoba families an undisclosed settlement to support their mental health expenses and acknowledge their pain and suffering.
However, despite knowing there are now two sets of switches – this case at the Springdale Cottage Hospital in 1969, and another involving two men born at the Come By Chance Cottage Hospital in 1962 – the Newfoundland and Labrador government has taken no action.
In an interview with The Globe, the province’s Health and Community Services Minister Tom Osborne offered sympathy to the families affected, describing their situations as “inconceivable,” but stopped short of an apology. “I just can’t imagine the emotions that these individuals have to deal with,” said Mr. Osborne, whose wife was born at Come By Chance Cottage Hospital in the ‘60s. “It’s not something that should have happened.”
Mr. Osborne said he would look into what the federal government did for the Manitoba families and consider whether there is anything the Newfoundland and Labrador government can follow, but he did not commit to an investigation, timeline, reparations or reimbursement for families, who each spent $800 on genetic testing to confirm the mistake.
“We are looking at the situation,” he said during a recent interview. “It’s too early to say whether we would undertake some of the same measures that Manitoba did, but I’m certainly willing to look at it.”
Mr. Osborne said the checks and balances to keep track of patient identification today are not the same as the ones used in the cottage hospital system at the time of the switches.
When asked if this means there could be more cases out there, considering there were 19 cottage hospitals that operated over several decades, he said, “There’s no way of knowing, but we certainly hope there’s not.”
He said a broad investigation or public inquiry is not necessary as it would not change the mistakes that were made and there is no indication switched-at-birth mistakes were endemic in Newfoundland’s cottage hospital system. “We’re only aware of a small number of individuals,” he said.
Others, however, believe the government needs to act swiftly. Progressive Conservative health critic Paul Dinn called on the provincial government to immediately launch an investigation to examine if these are isolated incidents or if there may be more cases, and whether the switches occurred deliberately or from a flaw in the system. “At a minimum these families are owed an apology,” Mr. Dinn said during an interview.
In May, four months after Mrs. Lush learned the earth-shattering news that her baby had been switched at birth, she stood holding a bouquet of daisies at the St. John’s International Airport. She worried she wouldn’t recognize Ms. Weir-Greene or that her new daughter wouldn’t recognize her.
But then the woman who was clearly her child walked towards Mrs. Lush, and tears began to stream down her face. When Ms. Weir-Greene stepped through the glass partition, Mrs. Lush grabbed her with both arms, squeezing her, inhaling her.
It had been 52 years since she first nuzzled her daughter’s head at the Springdale Cottage Hospital. She couldn’t let her go. Jason jumped up and down in his wheelchair with excitement. Mrs. Lush’s other adult children and grandchildren stood back for what seemed like the most awkwardly-long hug in the world.
Later that day, Mr. Lush heard the car door slam. At 82, he hadn’t been able to make the six-hour drive to and from the airport because of his arthritis. He stepped outside and saw Ms. Weir-Greene coming towards him. She had his long nose, his wife’s soft face. She was a miracle, he thought.
Inside the Lush home, perched above the main road that winds through Triton, Ms. Weir-Green sat at the kitchen table surrounded by a new family of strangers. She was beaming, asking questions and trying to connect with everyone in the room, but inside she felt a little bit stressed. A little bit awkward.
She couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that she was betraying the person she calls “mudder,” Toots Budgell (no direct relation to Joan Budgell), who has always been her confidante, her go-to person. And she could feel people watching her closely, trying to gauge who she looks like, taking note of her mannerisms. As she usually does, she cracked a few jokes, and then leaned into the easy bond she already felt with Jason, her younger brother who has special needs.
That evening, when Ms. Weir-Greene got up to head to her rental up the road, Mr. Lush became emotional. “I thought you were going to come home and stay here,” he said.
Ms. Weir-Greene was taken aback. “You gotta remember I’m 52 years old. I’m a grown woman,” she said, rubbing his hand. “I just need to be on my own.”
Later that night, after everyone had gone to bed, Mr. Lush turned to his wife of 57 years: “Thanks for bringing her home.”
The next day, Mrs. Lush worked in the kitchen all day to prepare her daughter’s first traditional Jiggs dinner, complete with roast turr, a black and white seabird her husband had shot down from his boat some months before.
By mid-afternoon, a savoury homecooked scent wafted through the house, as the family of siblings gathered in the living room talked about all their similarities. It was sweet and everyone worked hard to focus on the positive, but the agony and piercing regret spilled at times into their banter. “I can’t believe that I did such a thing,” Mrs. Lush cried out at one point. “That I left my baby.”
During the visit, Ms. Weir-Greene took her birth parents on a tour of her life. They drove to Beachside to see the bungalow where Ms. Weir-Greene grew up and the look-off at back cove where she gathered with friends and first crushes.
They ate Chinese combos at Marie’s Motel and Shanghai Restaurant where Ms. Weir-Greene worked as a teenager. It was painful for all of them to think that she had, probably at some point over the years, waited on her birth parents and siblings.
One night, the Lush family hosted a meet and greet for their new daughter at the local recreation hall. Inside, about 40 people shook their heads and wiped their eyes as Mrs. Lush spoke into a microphone, relaying her story for the first time publicly.
In a close-knit town like Triton, where families have known each other for generations, this wasn’t a tragedy that solely befell the Lush family. This affected all of Triton. The neighbours, cousins, aunts and uncles who congregated to meet Ms. Weir-Greene that evening all had the same question: How could this happen in a small place like this? Without answers, rumours and speculation churned.
“I think someone should pay,” said Judy Ryan, Mr. Lush’s sister. “If this happened once it’s too many. I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t.”
In the midst of this seismic revelation, Arlene is trying to find ways to connect with her new identity. She’s planning to get a new tattoo – a double helix, the symbol for DNA, which will also incorporate the birth flowers of her deceased parents and eight new half siblings. (Ms. Rowsell, who died in 2008, had children with multiple fathers; Arlene’s likely biological father died in 2005.)
Arlene has also begun a budding relationship with Toots Budgell, the aunt who would’ve raised her. The two bear a stunning resemblance: both slim with white blonde hair and side dimples. Arlene hopes to soon meet all of her new siblings who are spread across Newfoundland, Alberta and Ontario. And also Ms. Weir-Greene, her “swister,” she calls her – a portmanteau for sisters switched at birth.
Arlene has struggled since she discovered she was switched at birth. She still spends her days woodworking and making crafts, which she sells online, but lately she has started to jolt awake with nightmares, flashing back to fights with her mother and to the feeling of not quite belonging.
As a teen, she often wanted to escape, sneaking out of the house and sometimes running away to the next town of Pilley’s Island. At 15, she quit school for a job at the fish plant, plucking worms from cod on a conveyor belt and selling hash on the side. After she randomly disappeared for three days at 18 years old, leaving her baby boy in the care of her parents, Mrs. Lush kicked her out; she and Mr. Lush would raise the boy.
Arlene wonders about her place in the family now. She feels like she lost her mom and dad, even though Mrs. Lush insists that’s not the case. “You are my daughter and will always be,” she wrote to Arlene in a message shared with The Globe. “There is no way 52 years can be erased. … I loved you unconditionally all those years.”
Arlene now takes anti-depressants and pills to fall asleep. She said she finds it difficult to get out of bed and to eat. Her mind is constantly occupied with thoughts of how her life might’ve been different if she hadn’t been switched at birth.
“I feel like I lived 52 years of someone else’s life,” she said. “Sometimes I wish that DNA [test] was never done, that we never knew the truth because I’m not the same person.”
For Mrs. Lush, the neglect of Ms. Weir-Green’s first months of life haunts her. During phone calls with Ms. Weir-Greene and Mrs. Budgell, she learned about how her lost daughter came to be adopted.
As Mrs. Budgell remembers it, she temporarily moved into Ms. Rowsell’s home to help with the housekeeping and take care of Ms. Weir-Greene after she was born. When her brother-in-law, Hubert Weir, left for a mining job in Sudbury, Ont., Mrs. Budgell, who was 18 at the time, decided to go too. She got a job working at the Salvation Army.
Weeks later she received a letter from a neighbour in Beachside describing the children being left home alone in the care of their nine-year-old sibling. Mr. Weir and Mrs. Budgell jumped in the car, arriving a week before Christmas.
She swept in, scooping up Ms. Weir-Greene. She scrubbed the grime off the floors, baked bread and prepared meals of boiled potatoes and canned beans and peas. She put up a Christmas tree and hung plastic floral drapes on the windows.
“All they had was me,” said Mrs. Budgell, who soon adopted all five children and eventually married Mr. Weir. “I took them and I cleaned them up and done the best I can.”
As the ripples keep fanning out, the families are demanding answers. The more they get to know each other, the gravity of the mistake made at the Springdale Cottage Hospital becomes harder to bear.
Some family members feel jealous and betrayed by the new bonds developing between biological relatives. There is the desire to safeguard and maybe even lay claim to the relationships cemented over decades. And some, just like Arlene, wish they could go back to not knowing.
The mistake has reached forward into future generations, too. Arlene’s son, raised by the Lush parents, still lives with them at age 34.
For her part, Mrs. Lush repeats what she wrote to Arlene: She is still her daughter and her grandson is still her grandson, a valuable member of the family who helps take care of Jason. But she also wonders what life could have been like if things went differently. What if the switch hadn’t happened?
Arlene, never having met her biological mother, has since learned they share the same love for being outdoors and making crafts, the same resounding husky laugh and salty vocabulary. Ms. Weir-Greene, like her biological mother, emanates a chatty warmth. Like Mrs. Lush, she’s always busy taking care of others and thinking of ways to make other people smile.
“I’m more convinced than ever – it’s not how you’re raised,” Mrs. Lush said. “In the end, your personality is in your DNA.”
While the shock has worn off, Mrs. Lush still vacillates between pure joy that she found her daughter and unrelenting grief. And saying goodbye after Ms. Weir-Greene’s first visit was just as emotional as meeting her for the first time. No one in the family wanted to see Ms. Weir-Greene go, but she had her own life to return to – a husband, a job, a house more than 7,000 kilometres away.
Mr. and Mrs. Lush drove Ms. Weir-Greene the first hour of the day-long journey to the airport, stopping at a coffee shop to send her off with one of their other grown children, who would take Ms. Weir-Greene the rest of the way. As the car was about to pull away, Mrs. Lush reached inside the passenger side window to squeeze her new daughter one last time.
“I’m hoping to be back,” said Ms. Weir-Greene. But everyone knew it would never be enough. There would never be enough time together to make up for what was lost.
The cruelty of it hung in the air, implicit in the tears coming down Mrs. Lush’s lined face. And as Mr. Lush stood there, looking at his daughter’s face, a younger fuller reflection of his own, he could only get out a few words. “I hope I live long enough to get to know you more.”