30-year-old who died following a leg infection failed by N.L. health system, say friends

Friends of a St. John’s man say his tragic death following an infection shows how broken the province’s healthcare system has become.

Weijian Fang, 30, died alone in his apartment on Monkstown Road in late May after his leg became infected. He hadn’t had a family doctor since 2017.

His friends hope speaking publicly about it will provoke change.

“The more stories like this are told, the more pressure to improve will be put on the system so that people don’t die of something that is completely treatable,” said Dean Barnes, who knew Fang for more than a decade.

Fang’s body was found on May 24, 2022. Police and a friend went to his apartment after he didn’t show up to work at  Little Sparo, a downtown St. John’s restaurant.

Fang was born in China in 1991. As young man, he came to Canada with his parents who settled in St. John’s. His mother died of ovarian cancer in 2015. After that, his family lost ownership of the restaurant it owned on Duckworth Street, The Bamboo Garden.

Fang’s father returned to China. Barnes says he was too unwell to return to Canada for his son’s remains. His ashes were retrieved by relatives who live in the United States.

“It’s heartbreaking. His grandparents wanted his parents and him to have a better life which is why they came to Canada. His mother died in her forties with cancer and now he is dead at thirty,” said Barnes, a business data systems analyst and consultant.

Dean Barnes met Weijian Fang at the Bamboo Garden Restaurant, a business operated by Weijian’s family, on boxing day 2010. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Barnes fought back tears when asked to describe what Fang was like.

“He was the gentlest soul you could ever hope to meet. He was kind and generous. He worked his way up from being a dishwasher up to cooking in a restaurant. He was sending money home to his grandparents. I never heard him complain. I didn’t even know about his medical condition,” he said.

Fang lived with diabetes. Barnes said a medical examiner determined sepsis, the body’s response to infection that can lead to organ failure, was the cause of his death. He said when Fang was found one of his legs was black from the knee down.

The more stories are told the more pressure to improve will be put on the system so that 30-year-olds do not die of something that is completely treatable.– Dean Barnes

Fang had been without a family doctor for five years, since his physician retired. He was one of the more than 125, 000 people in in Newfoundland and Labrador who the province’s Medical Association say don’t have a family doctor. His friends strongly believe they’d still have Fang if he had had access to primary care. 

“Absolutely. He passed out at work. He had been taken several times to hospital from his work and whatever was done or not done, we now have a 30-year-old who is dead,” said Barnes.

“In the restaurant industry, if you are not working, you are not getting paid. What was he supposed to do? Just camp out in an emergency ward and hope he’s going to be seen?”

Brenda Johnson was a longtime friend of Weijian’s. She says she often joked that she was his “Newfoundland mother.” (Mark Quinn / CBC)

Barnes says Fang’s death illustrates how “insanely broken” the province’s health-care system is. He also says it’s not a new problem.

He said he witnessed systemic health-care problems with the treatment his father received more than two decades ago.

“COVID-19 is used as an excuse, but COVID-19 did not create new problems. It exacerbated them,” said Barnes.

‘Didn’t get support he needed’

Brenda Johnson also met Fang and his parents more than a decade ago at their restaurant.

She says their relationship grew stronger after Fang lost his mother. Johnson also has concerns about Fang’s inability to access primary care.

It’s just such a waste and should never have been.– Brenda Johnson

“He was supposed to be on a waiting list because he went to the Health Sciences Centre a few times in an ambulance from work but he was never assigned a doctor,” she said.

“It’s just such a waste and should never have been. He was really sick. The hospital should have known that and put him on a priority list to be attended to, but it didn’t happen like that and he died.”

Johnson hopes speaking about Fang will lead people to push for a better health-care system.

“I would like for people to care enough to speak up, and I would like for people who are in authority with the health-care system to get their act together. You know, how many people have to die? He hadn’t even started his life and that happened. That’s just tragic.”

Weijian Fang with some of his relatives. (Weijian Fang family)

Johnson, a retired Bell Canada employee in her 60s, says the province’s aging population should have concerns about the current state of Newfoundland and Labrador’s health-care system and where it will be in the future.

“Darling, I’m there. You know, I’ve had a few things happen and I’ve gone off in an ambulance. A mild stroke and a few things, and it’s not great,” she said.

The provincial department of Health and Community Services responded to CBC News’s request for comment with a statement, calling the doctor shortage a priority for government.

“The Department sends condolences to the family and friends of the man who has passed away. However, due to privacy reasons we are not able to speak about an individual case,” it says.

“Government understands the challenges associated with not having a primary-care provider. We have created an Office of Recruitment and Retention … and additional staff have been hired.”

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