In 1962, nurses at a small Canadian hospital sent home two women with the wrong babies. 50 years later, their children discovered the shocking mistake
Rita Hynes lugged her pregnant body up the rural hospital’s wooden steps. It was the night of December 7, 1962, and her rounded belly tightened with each contraction. At the hospital, she felt the intensifying crests of pain—at first bearable, then searing as the night wore on. Just after midnight, the cries of her new baby pierced the air. A boy! She named him Clarence Peter Hynes. He was deposited in the hospital’s nursery and tucked into a bassinet, while Rita dozed in the women’s ward.
Clarence, whom everyone calls Clar, grew up in a Canadian fishing town, St. Bernard’s, perched on the edge of Fortune Bay in the North Atlantic island province of Newfoundland. His father, Ches, was a fisherman, and Clar was the first in a steady stream of infants to arrive at the Hyneses’ home. Clar slept in a top bunk in a room he shared with his brothers. They were fairer than he was—Clar had a toasty complexion and a head of thick, dark hair. He grew to become a local heartthrob, with a chiselled brow and lean, muscular frame. When he drove his navy blue Chevy Camaro around town, the teenage girls of St. Bernard’s swooned.
At age 24, Clar met a woman named Cheryl at a motel bar in Marystown, farther down the boot-shaped peninsula from where he grew up. She was the belle of the bar, and he was instantly smitten. As the two talked over beers and glasses of rum and 7Up, Cheryl found him attentive and kind. They danced and chatted the night away. She didn’t want it to end. They were married two years later in Marystown’s white, steepled Anglican church.
Rita was diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer a few years later, at 50. Clar nursed her as a mother would a baby. He held her and rocked her in his childhood bungalow on the hill, making sure to face a window on the ocean so she could see the waves. Rita also stayed with Clar and Cheryl at their home in the provincial capital, St. John’s, during her futile cancer treatments. Clar spoon-fed his mother bowls of fish and potatoes. He spent day after day with her right up until the end, so she would never be alone. Five years after that, lung cancer took Clar’s father.
Clar and Cheryl raised three children of their own. By 2014, Clar was a welding foreman at Bull Arm, where employees were building an oil platform that would eventually be towed out to sea. That December, 52 years to the day after he was brought into the world, Clar overheard a woman in the hallway just outside his office sing out to a co-worker, “It’s Craig’s birthday!” The woman’s name was Tracey Avery, and she was a cleaner at Bull Arm. She was talking about her husband, who also worked at the site. How funny, Clar thought. “It’s my birthday, too,” he said with a laugh.
“Oh!” Tracey replied. “How old are you?” When Clar told her his age, Tracey’s next words came tumbling out: “Where were you born?”
“Come By Chance rural hospital,” Clar said.
Tracey stood still for a second, her mouth agape. Then she ran, leaving her mop and cart behind.
Different from the start
The stirring of this long-buried truth might have been sheer coincidence, one of those wild things that just happens. Or maybe it was inevitable, born of the nature of this place. Newfoundland has a rugged coastline, with hundreds of communities nestled into crooks, crannies, and coves, each its own remote kingdom fortified by rolling bluffs. Extended families are vast and tightly bound. For a long time they had to be. In such an austere place, it was a matter of survival. Today on “The Rock,” as Newfoundland is affectionately known, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are.
Getting to places along Newfoundland’s 9,650 kilometres of mountainous coast has always been a challenge. In the early 20th century, people in many of the island’s approximately 1,300 outports—the local term for fishing towns—had limited access to health care. Rural hospitals—small clinics with beds and live-in nurses—were strategically located to serve dozens of outports at once.
"In Newfoundland, your bay and your bloodline still define who you are"
The first of these opened in 1936, including one in Come By Chance, which served more than 50 outports. Pregnant women arrived there in an unending procession, by dirt road and boat, from capes and islets. By 1958, Newfoundland’s families were, on average, the largest in Canada—households had seven, eight, even ten children.
Many women returned to the rural hospitals on a nearly annual basis to give birth. Among them was Mildred Avery, who came from a Protestant hamlet called Hillview, on Trinity Bay. By the time she was 29, five children, all boys, filled the house built by her husband, Donald. On December 7, 1962, Mildred arrived in Come By Chance to deliver her sixth child. Early the next morning, the baby emerged. It was another boy, weighing in at just under three kilograms. Mildred named him Craig Harvey Avery, and he was placed in the nursery alongside the other squinch-faced newborns, including Clar, who just seven hours earlier had taken his first breath.
Mildred took Craig home to Hillview, adding him to her brood. From the start Craig was different. Nobody in the Avery family could figure out who he looked like. He grew into a strapping blue-eyed jokester, nothing like his quiet, darkhaired siblings. Craig was freckled; his father, Donald, had high, sculpted cheekbones. Donald worked variously as a woodcutter, carpenter, fisherman and mason, with Craig often at his side.
Craig quit school in the tenth grade and joined his brother Wayne in Ontario at a porcelain factory, making sinks and toilets. He was on the rowdy side, a guy who picked fights and chased all the pretty girls. When he moved back to Hillview, Craig got odd jobs, cutting brush and helping build an extension on the wharf. He did a little bit of everything, just like his father, and took care of family members when they needed a hand, stacking their wood or shovelling their snow.
Craig married his first wife, who was from the next cove over. Several years later, after three children and a divorce, he found his partner for life, the sister of one of the men with whom he played softball. Tracey was spunky, the type who didn’t miss a beat. Eventually, they both got jobs at Bull Arm—the same site where Clar Hynes was employed. It was Tracey who first noticed the man who looked strikingly like her in-laws. Clar had Mildred Avery’s brown eyes and strong nose, and he could have been the twin of one of Craig’s brothers, Clifford.
But Tracey didn’t think much more about the uncanny likeness until that December when she discovered her husband not only shared a birthday with Clar but was born at the same hospital.
That night, Tracey and Craig sat up in their queen-size bed, talking and drinking black tea until the sun rose over the bluffs. It was a huge mental leap from recognizing a series of coincidences to wondering if he was switched at birth, but inside Craig knew—he just knew.
Something clicked into place, a piece of his existence that had always stuck out awkwardly. His mind spun with questions: How did it happen? What was my life supposed to be like? Where would I be now? What would I be doing?
Searching for answers
Soon after, the Averys decided they needed photos of Clar to show Craig’s siblings. After a few days, Tracey got her chance. They were in the Bull Arm lunchroom, at their usual table, when they spotted Clar. Tracey held her phone up, surreptitiously snapping a picture of him in profile. Over the next few days, Craig texted the image to his brothers and sister. They shook their heads in disbelief. Craig’s older brother Clifford, the one who looked almost identical to Clar, offered to do a DNA test to determine if Craig was really his kin.
When Tracey and Craig approached Clar to tell him about their suspicion, he found the whole thing outrageous. Sure, his mind wandered briefly: Wow, Craig does look a lot like my brother. And he remembered some odd encounters he’d had over the years. There was, for example, the time in a toy store when he heard a woman say, “Cliff! Cliff!” After repeated calls, to which he hadn’t responded, the woman approached him. “Oh,” she said, surprised when he explained he was Clarence Hynes. “I thought you were Cliff Avery from Hillview.”
Still, when the Averys told him their theory, Clar dismissed the possibility that he wasn’t the person he’d always been. Everyone looks like someone.
The town of Come By Chance, Newfoundland
Craig got the email with the results comparing his DNA with Clifford’s in the late fall of 2015. He was too nervous to click on the message himself, so Tracey did it. Not only did he and Clifford not share the same father, but they weren’t even distantly related. The first person Craig called was Clar. But Clar, even while he felt a wave of sadness, wasn’t convinced that the news applied to him.
That winter, Clifford started calling Clar. He wanted to meet, but Clar always had an excuse. Then, one day that spring, Clifford died by suicide after quietly suffering from depression for several years, following the death of his young son. At work, Craig handed him the obituary, and Clar politely accepted it, but he couldn’t bring himself to read it, and he didn’t attend the funeral either. It has nothing to do with me, he told himself again.
But the truth seeped in slowly. For the first time in his life, he didn’t want to go to work. Unshovelled snow piled up in his driveway. He was like a bird caught in a crosswind. Clar moved from his bed to the couch, the couch to the bed, sometimes stopping to sob at the kitchen counter.
Fearing her husband might take his own life, Cheryl hid the car keys each night after supper, tucking them into a black plastic box high in the bedroom closet, where she also stashed all the medication in the house. Some nights, when Clar couldn’t sleep, he walked to his younger brother Chesley’s home, where he talked and cried with his head in his hands until dawn.
Chesley had never seen Clar, 17 years his senior, in such a fragile state. As the eldest sibling, Clar had always been a father figure, especially after their dad died. To see him like that shook Chesley to his core.
It took more than a year for Clar to surface from the abyss. His wife and sisters finally convinced him to see a doctor, and he was diagnosed with clinical depression. Once he was on the right medication, he slowly returned to his old self. That was when he decided it was time. He knew that mental illness ran in the Avery family, that Clifford had suffered from it. For his own health and that of his kids, Clar had to be sure: Was he a Hynes or an Avery?
When Clar’s test results arrived in the mail, in the winter of 2019, he called Craig. Clar had laid out his results on the kitchen counter next to Clifford’s, which Craig had shared with him. “Everything was a match,” Clar said. He and Clifford had been brothers.
There was silence on both ends of the phone. Finally, Craig spoke: “We know now that it’s all real.”
The next question has plagued the men and their families ever since: How did it happen?
A life-changing mistake
Digging for answers led the Averys and the Hyneses to a nurse with an odd nickname. Christina Anne Callanan was born in the Irish city of Galway in 1924. She trained to be a nurse and, at age 19, moved to Canada for work. In her 30s, she relocated to Come By Chance, a town with one main road, a post office, and a general store.
Callanan was brisk and competent, the first to emerge from her quarters on the second floor of the hospital each morning. She rose to the position of head nurse, which, in addition to delivering babies and assisting in the operating room, required managing the office, distributing prescriptions, and supervising staff.
Some colleagues described her as like a big sister. But other colleagues found Callanan to be like an army sergeant who put everyone on edge. Her underlings called her Nurse Tiger behind her back, for her fiery, domineering ways. She was known for pillorying the young nurses and their aides. “Where’s your hat?” she would roar across the room to a young woman who’d forgotten it that day.
The nursery was often packed. When all the bassinets were full, babies were deposited in red-and-white milk crates. Nurse’s aides, who were as young as 16 and didn’t have medical training, were overworked, with little to no time off. They were often the ones who looked after the babies at night while the mothers slept in the wards. They warmed bottles of milk, scooped up crying infants to console them, and changed soiled diapers.
"If a nurse or an aide was in a rush, a baby could easily be placed in the wrong bassinet"
The bassinets and milk crates were supposed to be labelled. Aides and other staff were warned: Make sure the name on the label matches the baby’s arm band, and make sure both match what’s on the mother’s hospital bracelet. But sometimes arm bands slipped off after the swelling in the babies’ limbs—a common occurrence after birth—went down. If a nurse or an aide was in a rush, a baby could easily be placed in the wrong bassinet or crate.
By all accounts, Callanan ran a tight ship, but then something changed. In the process of one particularly difficult birth a nurse’s aide got in her way. The aide was trying to put the correct identity band on the baby. Protocol dictated that both the infant’s and the mother’s bands be attached immediately following birth, in the delivery room. But Callanan became annoyed and sent the aide out of the room. “Do that outside,” she said. “It needn’t be done here.”
From that point on, protocol was relaxed. Identity bands could be attached to mother and baby after they’d been separated, once the infant was in the nursery with the other newborns. Callanan was in charge in December 1962, when Craig and Clar were born. She delivered both babies, and it’s her name, signed with tight, curlicued Cs, atop the medical records of the births.
Together, Clar and Craig and their families decided to sue the Newfoundland government for the hospital’s negligence and the irreparable damage done by it. The families found out that a few short months before Clar and Craig were born, another family had been given the wrong baby—but they had luckily realized the mistake. If action had been taken, the Averys and Hyneses argue, maybe Craig and Clar would have gone to the right homes. They believe the department of health should have intervened, investigated mistakes made by and complaints lodged against Callanan, and set more stringent birth-management policies.
As they wait for the legal case to proceed, the families are coming to grips with what happened. In the summer of 2019, Craig made his first visit St. Bernard’s, where Clar had grown up and then nursed Rita when she was dying. When he arrived, he stood outside for an hour and a half before he could bring himself to step inside the bungalow. At the kitchen counter, he cracked lobster claws with Clar, conscious that all this—the view, the people, the walls—should have been home.
From left: Rita and Ches Hynes; Mildred and Donald Avery
Meanwhile, the Hynes siblings took in their new brother’s moustached grin, how he palmed his fork like their father had, how he too walked with a slight hunch, and a side-to-side motion.
Craig and Clar have become like brothers, but their bond is something altogether different. They spend time together, and with their various siblings, on snowmobile excursions punctuated by boil-ups—an afternoon of tea, chili, toasted bread, and hot dogs roasted over a crackling fire. On weekends they stay at Craig’s getaway cabin or park their camper vans in St. Bernard’s.
They find comfort in cherished family members’ tics and mannerisms that they see in each other. Craig reminds Clar of his father—the way he taps one arm with two fingers on the opposite hand, the way he sits when he eats, hunched over with his knees apart. For Craig, looking at Clar’s eyes is like looking at his brother Clifford’s, or his mother’s.
"Craig and Clar have become like brothers, but their bond is something altogether different"
The men try not to indulge too much in the what-ifs and if-onlys. Life has been hard lately. Newfoundland’s fossil fuel industry has cratered, and Craig was laid off at work. Matters grew worse with pandemic lockdowns, and Craig struggled to fill his days and keep his mind from wandering. He used to be more easygoing, but now he’s quick to anger. “How do you get back all these years?” he says. “How do you get back all that you missed? You’ll never get it back.”
For his part, Clar keeps conspicuously busy. When he’s not at work, he’s been building a new garage and constructing a cabin in St. Bernard’s. The tasks help keep his emotions at bay, especially the regret about the family he never met.
All the parents—Rita and Ches, Mildred and Donald—are gone now, a sad fact that nonetheless means the families don’t have to navigate an extra layer of emotional turmoil.
Clar watched a video of his birth mother for the first time in 2020. It was footage of Mildred dancing with Craig in the nursing home, stepping side to side. As Clar took in her short grey curls, the eyes like shiny river stones, the long nose that was also his own, he shook his head in awe. This was the woman in whose body he grew, who laboured to give him life, who surely loved him at first sight. This was the closest to her that he could ever be.
Nothing can undo or excuse that terrible mistake made in Come By Chance, but before there was any knowledge of wrong families, there were loving ones. Now there’s something else: An unlikely unit of Hyneses and Averys, welded together by the cruelest of truths, and also by compassion and devotion.
© 2021, The Atavist. From "The Lives of Others," by Lindsay Jones, The Atavist (March 2021). Atavist.com
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