How a divorced couple’s feuding physician fathers became focus of unique medical-discipline case

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The two physicians had practiced in the same community for 35 years and were ‘very friendly,’ one of them says. But things changed when their children got a divorce

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During decades as doctors in small-town southern Ontario, John Bartlett and John Charles Winegard got along well, according to one of the two at least. When Bartlett’s son married Winegard’s daughter, their relations continued to be “very cordial.”

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But then the couple went through a fractious divorce and child-custody battle and the physician fathers ended up opponents in a strange medical-discipline case, just brought to light by a new appeal ruling .

The now-retired Bartlett accused Winegard of planting memories of childhood abuse in his son’s mind and those of two other sons in law, poisoning his three daughters’ marriages, all of which ended in divorce. In a previous, 2007 discipline case, Winegard had agreed to no longer treat patients with multiple-personality disorder, a controversial diagnosis often linked to recovered memories of abuse.

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Bartlett also said Winegard had violated professional rules against doctors treating their own family members.

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Winegard — head of emergency at a hospital in Petrolia, Ont. — responded that the other physician had launched “a constant campaign of harassment” against him when his son’s marriage splintered, even complaining to child-welfare authorities. The discipline complaint was just one salvo, he charged.

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“(Bartlett) has sent emails with false allegations about (Winegard) and his family to members of the public, the local dental and medical communities, Children’s Aid Society, family friends and his former sons-in-law,” wrote an appeal board in its decision this month, quoting Winegard. “Children’s Aid Society closed their case as there was no evidence to support the … allegations.”

The complaints committee of Ontario’s College of Physicians and Surgeons eventually struck a “remedial agreement” with Winegard that requires him to brush up on rules around treating family members.

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He admitted that he once prescribed the narcotic painkiller Percocet to Bartlett’s son when the man’s own doctor was not available and on another occasion stitched up a cut suffered by his grandson, who wanted only his grandfather to treat him.

The regulator says doctors should not treat themselves or family members except in an emergency when no other physician is available, pointing to evidence that doing so could cloud their objectivity.

Bartlett appealed the decision to Ontario’s Health Professions Appeal and Review Board, arguing the committee did not “get to the core of the most damaging complaints.”

The board, though, upheld the College panel ’s decision last week, calling it reasonable.

Winegard declined comment on the case through his lawyer. Bartlett could not be reached for comment.

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The subject of the complaints is head of the emergency department at the Charlotte Engelhart site of Bluewater Health in Petrolia, located near the southern tip of Lake Huron. Bartlett retired in 2019 as a family doctor in nearby Sarnia.

Winegard told the College the pair had practiced in the same community for 35 years and always were “very friendly.” In the 10 years of their children’s marriage, the families remained on good terms, he said, but things changed when the young couple separated in May 2019.

Bartlett’s complaint alleged that Winegard had acted as a marriage counsellor to his three daughters and their spouses, and in the process created “false” memories that the sons had been abused by their fathers and wouldn’t be good parents to their own children. His advice helped trigger the three divorces, and alienated his grandchildren from their fathers, Bartlett charged.

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Winegard said he once provided psychological counselling but stopped doing so 20 years ago. In a 2007 brush with the College, he agreed not to treat patients for dissociative identity disorder (DID) — what was once called multiple-personality disorder. No other public information is available on that case.

DID is a much-debated condition , often linked to suppressed memories of abuse. It’s included in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s so-called bible, and is endorsed by many experts. But critics, pointing to a surge of cases in the 1980s and 1990s that has since evaporated, argue the disorder mostly appears because of suggestion by therapists.

A 2001 Sarnia Observer article quoted Winegard as saying his practice once consisted mainly of DID patients but that their numbers had dropped off dramatically.

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In his response to the College, the physician said he neither orchestrated the divorces, provided any kind of marriage counselling or put a wedge between fathers and their children. He “absolutely” denied planting memories of abuse with his sons in law.

Winegard called Bartlett’s alleged harassment campaign against him “aggressive, threatening and disturbing.”

College investigators interviewed the three sons and daughters, and the sons said they had been “counselled” about family matters by the doctor. But the “divergent” accounts left the panel unable to conclude that there had been marriage counselling that constituted a patient-doctor relationship, thus breaking the rules. It similarly said there was no independent evidence that his actions led to estrangement in the younger families.

The appeal board concluded the decision was “transparent, intelligible and justified.”


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