Vanessa was beautiful. She was a popular, sensitive girl who dreamt of becoming a social worker. When I visit her grave I find flowers there and have no idea who left them. Vanessa’s death was so difficult for her friends they have not forgotten her. It was because of the kind of person she was.
She loved music. One of Vanessa’s favourite songs was Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. At Anglican choir school she enjoyed singing I Vow To Thee My Country:
- I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
- Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.
Vanessa’s big sister Madeline chose that hymn for her funeral service. I still can’t hear it without a jolting and painful flashback to that day.
She was the middle child, with a younger brother Hart. Vanessa was very empathetic, as middle children often are: they are sensitive to an older sibling’s ups and downs, and protective of the younger one.
Vanessa left kind notes for others, and would call my cellular phone any time of day just to say, “Hi Dad, see you when you get home.” She never said goodbye without adding, “I love you.”
When Vanessa was younger, and saw an elderly person walking along the street alone as we drove by, she’d tell me that made her feel sad. I explained that person might not be lonely at all, but simply going to the store to buy food to make dinner for family – and besides, some people like to be alone. I don’t think she ever really believed me.
We had neighbours with a newborn and Vanessa loved her job as a “mother’s helper”. She called the infant “my baby”. We had a golden retriever named Romulus, and whenever Vanessa was away at choir camp she would call every night: was Romulus okay?
Following day one of the coroner’s inquest a year after her death, a young man and his mother came to our door with a bouquet of flowers for my wife Gloria and me. He said, “We didn’t spend a lot of time together but Vanessa used to talk to me in the hallway.” His mother spoke to us, explaining he was a quiet boy who did not have a lot of friends, and that Vanessa had gone out of her way to be kind. It made us proud.
At 14 Vanessa developed mild bulimia. Our family doctor prescribed Prepulsid, a Johnson & Johnson treatment for digestive disorders. The newspapers called it a “heartburn drug”. It didn’t do much good, so the doctor increased the dosage.
On March 15, 2000 Vanessa visited a child psychiatrist for the first time. The doctor’s handwritten notes were later produced at the inquest: “No depression, no anxiety, alert, cooperative, attractive, well-groomed, 137 lbs, logical, coherent, laughed, good concentration, good memory.” That was the Vanessa I knew.
Four days later Vanessa died of heart failure. Health Canada recalled Prepulsid five months after Vanessa’s death, citing adverse side effects. The department confirmed 44 reports of severe cardio-rhythmic side effects from Prepulsid, including 10 deaths.
Afterwards I had a dream: a vivid memory of a summer night long ago, when Vanessa was two years old. She’d been crying after we put her down to bed, and was pointing at the window: “Monster,” she whimpered. I heard nothing unusual. I assured her nothing was wrong, and went back downstairs.
Minutes later little Vanessa was crying again. “Monster,” she said. Puzzled, I listened. The only noise I heard was a cricket outside the window, down the ravine. “Is that noise the monster?” I asked her. She shook her head yes.
The following day we walked into the ravine and I caught a cricket in my hand to show her: “See, Vanessa, no monster.” She studied the cricket. She was pleased. There were no monsters. I took her little hand and we walked back to the house. It was strange. After Vanessa was gone, I could still feel her hand in mine.
(Editor’s note: the author is former Conservative MP for Oakville, Ont. and author of Bill C-17 An Act To Amend The Food & Drugs Act, known as “Vanessa’s Law” in memory of Mr. Young’s daughter. Health Canada is currently drafting regulations under the Act to broaden Health Canada powers to recall prescription drugs deemed to pose an “imminent risk of injury to health”; oblige manufacturers to report any adverse reaction or license suspensions within or outside Canada; and set penalties for non-compliance at a maximum $5 million in fines and two years’ imprisonment)