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Nearly seven years after 12 babies died following heart surgery in a problem-riddled program, the Manitoba government has offered the children's families $100,000 each, with no strings attached.

"We are not legally liable by any stretch of the imagination," Manitoba Health Minister Dave Chomiak said in a phone interview yesterday. "But these families have been through personal hells. . . . It [the money]is simply in recognition of the unique, extraordinary circumstances they had to go through."

The offer came "out of the blue," according to some parents, who first heard about it after their lawyers were called to an impromptu meeting in Winnipeg early yesterday with government representatives.

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"Everything has been dragged out for so long, you don't expect anything to come of it. I don't know what to think," said Sarah Tena, whose two-year-old daughter Marietess Capili was the seventh of 12 babies to die after heart surgery at the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre between March and December, 1994.

"I'm going to accept it," said Linda Feakes of Winnipeg. Her 16-month-old son Ashton died after a fairly standard heart-valve operation at the hospital. The 12 who died were among 44 operated on by surgeon Jonah Odim before the hospital's cardiac-surgery program was suspended in 1995.

"My son died 6½ years ago. This has been a long haul -- days lost at work, parking downtown, babysitting costs. . . . They didn't owe us money. But I do want blame to be laid somewhere," Ms. Feakes said yesterday.

Last November, Judge Murray Sinclair issued a blistering report about the 1994 pediatric cardiac surgery program at the health sciences centre. His report was the culmination of an arduous inquest that began in 1995.

It said the doctors overseeing the program were "a relatively inexperienced cardiologist and an even more junior surgeon who had just completed his training."

Judge Sinclair deemed five of the deaths preventable. He concluded that surgery on three other babies should never have performed in Manitoba, and questions surrounded another three deaths.

The notion of compensation for families gathered momentum after the Sinclair report, Mr. Chomiak said yesterday.

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Last night, Mr. Chomiak met with parents at a downtown Winnipeg hotel to "express his compassion and concern" for their suffering and fill them in on details of the compensation offer.

Families can take the $100,000 and still continue to sue the hospital and doctors involved, he said. Four families are involved in litigation.

Not everyone is satisfied.

"It may at first wash seem like a significant amount of money," said Winnipeg lawyer Saul Simmonds, who represents the parents of six of the children. "However, these families spent three years in the courtrooms, hearing about misadventures in the operating room, being told horror stories about errors in surgery and errors in hospital administration that should never have happened. . . . Some of the parents have no interest in speaking to the minister. They feel it is too little, too late."

Mr. Simmonds thinks the government should have negotiated the compensation with parents. Mr. Chomiak, himself a former lawyer, said such negotiations would have meant more fees for lawyers, and that the Manitoba government has already paid out $600,000 to cover legal fees for the families.

Many of the doctors, nurses and administrators involved in the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery program at Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre -- including Dr. Odim -- have found other work in their professions.

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But for the families of the children, "there has been so much human wreckage," baby Ashton's grandmother, Margaret Feakes, said.

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