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Inquiry told Calgary Flames skipped vaccination line to avoid chaos

Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla, second from right, was one of about 150 people close to the Flames organization who received the H1N1 vaccination in a private session.


The Calgary Flames and others connected to the team got a private vaccination session during the 2009 H1N1 influenza scare after a team doctor raised concerns with Alberta Health Services that the players might cause chaos at public clinics, an inquiry has been told.

Revelations about the arrangement became a sore point with ordinary Albertans, some of whom waited hours for their shots at the public clinics, and the situation was further inflamed when those clinics turned away patients because of a vaccine shortage.

James Thorne, a physician with the National Hockey League franchise, told the provincial inquiry into queue jumping on Friday that he now regrets raising his concerns about security and privacy for the players with a public health nurse who happened to be one of his patients. But he said he also told her, "We don't want to be marched past the lineup."

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He testified that the nurse called back with instructions from further up the chain of command that if Dr. Thorne could open his own clinic, then AHS would release some vaccine. She and another nurse voluntarily administered the shots.

Flames' president Ken King approved the arrangement, he added.

Still, when asked about the questionable optics, Dr. Thorne said he thought it "might be an issue."

"There were five-hour lineups, and we weren't going to be in that lineup," he said.

About 150 people – players, their families and team officials – got the vaccine, and the two nurses declined Dr. Thorne's offer of free hockey tickets as a thank you.

The shots were given on Oct. 30, 2009, – the day AHS announced a vaccine shortage and began closing clinics. Concerns about a shortage had surfaced previously across the continent, but Dr. Thorne said he was surprised to learn of the local supply problem when he read about it in the newspaper the next day, and thought: "This is going to be bad. We weren't in a lineup and now people can't get it."

Two health-care workers at AHS were later fired.

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"Regrettably, we took the offer," Dr. Thorne said, "and in hindsight we probably should have got in that lineup with our own security."

Ken Hughes, who was chairman of the AHS superboard at the time and is now Alberta's energy minister, told the inquiry he was "deeply offended" when he learned about the incident and called it a "very serious breach of a standard." He also shared his view of VIP queue jumping.

"They should damn well line up with the rest of us," he said.

The probe also heard about the quick care of another high-profile athlete, Canadian triathlete Paula Findlay, from her father, Edmonton neurosurgeon Max Findlay.

Dr. Findlay recalled a 2011 call from his daughter's coach, who said Ms. Findlay was experiencing pain in her right hip. Dr. Findlay consulted a radiologist, who said magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) should be done "urgently."

"I thought either that day or the next day – from a father's point of view – he thought it should be done that day," Dr. Findlay recalled.

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Dr. Findlay told the inquiry that his daughter's immediate access to the test in the public system didn't amount to a favour and she didn't bump any other patient, but added that his involvement in the situation made him "uncomfortable."

"But I didn't have an alternative, so I was okay with it," he said.

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta later reminded Dr. Findlay of the code of ethics that prohibits doctors from treating family members. He apologized.

Ms. Findlay, who was later diagnosed with a bad muscle strain, took time away from competition, but entered the London Olympics last summer a favourite to win a medal. She finished last amid allegations that her team mismanaged her injury.

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