'They put me through hell': N.S. widow wins federal compensation after more than 10 years fighting
Dawn Collins says she can finally get rid of the thousands of pages of documents she amassed during her long battle against Veterans Affairs.
It’s a fight that began when her husband, a Royal Canadian Navy veteran, was diagnosed with a rare neurodegenerative disease in 2008.
Wayne Collins served as a Marine Engineering Mechanic aboard HMCS Nipigon for five years beginning in 1962.
At the time, Dawn Collins says her husband did suffer symptoms of abdominal pain and vomiting, which she says they later learned were characteristics of carbon tetrachloride poisoning. Once commonly used as a solvent, Health Canada now describes carbon tetrachloride as toxic.
Years later, Wayne was diagnosed with Multiple System Atrophy, a disease on the same path as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to Dawn Collins.
The couple always believed it was caused by Wayne’s exposure to the chemical while in service.
“Wayne’s disease was bad, really bad,” says Dawn Collins. “He was a man that ran a grocery store, and working 110 miles an hour, to going down to he couldn't even brush his teeth.”
With Wayne unable to work and needing his wife for care, the couple sold their business in Chester, N.S., and spent tens of thousands of dollars on medical expenses and equipment, such as a wheelchair and lift.
At one point, the couple travelled to Germany for an expensive stem cell treatment. Dawn Collins says that alleviated his symptoms for a year, but the disease returned after that.
In 2011, the pair made their first application of many to Veterans Affairs for disability benefits. It was denied.
Wayne died less than a year later.
Ten years passed, during which Dawn Collins was forced to sell their home because she could no longer afford it.
She also kept applying to the federal government for financial assistance but was turned down repeatedly.
“They just, you know, put me through hell,” she says.
Paperwork kept by Dawn Collins shows Veterans Affairs didn't agree there was a definitive connection between her husband’s fatal illness and his time in service.
While Dawn says many people told her to give up, she continued gathering research, doctor’s notes, and even digging up the decision on a similar case in the United States.
“Because I knew these chemicals took his life,” she says. “They deprived him of his retirement years.”
Dawn Collins says she developed her own health issues at the same time, including anxiety, which has often made it difficult for her to work.
Last week, she received unexpected news from her bureau of pensions advocate, who presented her case to the Veterans Review and Appeal Board (VRAB).
“It took a couple of days to sink in, because I’m so used to deny, deny, deny, deny, deny,” she says.
Her advocate explained the board had granted her what is called a compassionate award – financial compensation for what is described in its decision as “equal to an award for pain and suffering.”
Dawn Collins prefers to keep the exact amount private - but says it’s in the range of several hundred thousand dollars.
The federal minister of Veterans Affairs, Lawrence MacAuley, declined CTV’s request for an interview about Dawn Collins' case. Instead, referring CTV to VRAB, which is independent from the department.
“Our job is, we take a look at their case with a set of fresh eyes,” says VRAB chair, Chris McNeil.
Veterans and family members making an appeal to the board are given free legal representation to help with their case.
The decision in Dawn Collins' instance, is only the third compassionate award given in the past 15 years.
“You have to recognize that medical technology and medicine and law evolve over time and sometimes there’s just that window that parliament understood that there would be exceptional circumstances out there,” said McNeil.
“It is an exceptional remedy,” McNeil adds. “It's acknowledging at some level that you can't make a link to service.”
Former MP and one-time Veterans Affairs critic, Peter Stoffer, spent years trying to help Dawn Collins win her case.
“I went to ministers, we did committee reports, we had press conferences,” he says.
While he’s glad to see her finally receive compensation, he says it shouldn’t have taken this long.
“They should have done the right thing and said, 'This is what happened to him, here's what she needs to live out the rest of her life, done, just get it done,' but that's not what they do,” says Stoffer.
Stoffer is now a veterans advocate. He would like to see frontline staff at the department given the authority to make decisions on veterans’ cases, rather than having to send matters through several layers of bureaucracy.
“It was shuffled from one level of the department to another,” he says. “Over, let’s say, 11 years, probably cost multi-thousands of dollars to do this. Plus, take into consideration the dignity that Dawn lost for all those years, and the respect that she lost.”
At 77 years old, Dawn Collins is now older than Wayne was when he died, and knows compensation doesn't bring her husband of 47 years back.
But she says it does allow her - to move on with her life.
A compassionate award, however, doesn't set a precedent for anyone else who may be in a similar situation.
But, Dawn Collins still wants them to know, “Whatever you do, you do not give up, because if you give up, they win.”