Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Mother to sue NHS over County Down baby's death

Hayley Fullerton who died at Birmingham Children's Hospital one month after her first birthday after undergoing corrective surgery for a heart condition
Undated family handout photo of Paula Stevenson holding her daughter, Hayley Fullerton who died at Birmingham Children's Hospital one month after her first birthday after undergoing corrective surgery for a heart condition

The mother of a baby girl who died after serious failures by hospital staff is to sue the NHS over her daughter's "preventable and predictable" death.

County Down woman Paula Stevenson, whose 13-month-old daughter, Hayley Fullerton, died after undergoing open heart surgery in 2009, also called for a change of culture within the NHS to prevent future tragedies.

Ms Stevenson issued her call for US-style "rapid response teams" to be introduced to British hospitals after a coroner said Hayley would have had a better chance of survival if she had been admitted to intensive care.

Hayley, who was born in County Down on 6 October 2008, underwent surgery to repair a heart condition in October 2009. She died at Birmingham Children's Hospital a month later after being transferred from a paediatric intensive care unit to a general ward.

Her mother, who now lives on Australia's Gold Coast, flew to the UK to attend today's hearing before the Birmingham and Solihull Coroner.

Speaking afterwards, Ms Stevenson said the hospital represented "bullies, cowards and hypocrites" and said she believed Hayley's death could have been avoided.

Ms Stevenson, who called for the NHS to set up rapid response teams to give patients' families a right to an urgent second opinion, said: "Today is Hayley's day - I have been waiting three years to speak up.

"Hayley died like an abandoned animal - nobody listened to me while Hayley was dying and nobody listened to me when Hayley was dead."

Clutching a framed photograph of Hayley, Ms Stevenson added: "Our entire family has been completely devastated by what happened and to this day we continue to grieve.

"I still cannot understand how trained medics could ignore the fact that she was slowly deteriorating before their eyes.

"They had seven days to spot that something was seriously wrong but all those precious opportunities were missed.

"My parents and I never left Hayley's bedside during the entire time she was in hospital and it was obvious to us, despite our lack of medical training, that she was a very sick little girl who needed help."

Ms Stevenson, who has instructed lawyers to proceed with civil action against the trust which runs the hospital, said: "I did all I could to try to get the nurses to help her but my appeals just fell on deaf ears.

"At one point, after I had complained that Hayley wasn't getting the treatment she needed, she was moved to an isolation room, with staff claiming she might have swine flu.

"This diagnosis was later found to be completely wrong but it meant we were moved even further from the nurses' station and couldn't attract their attention easily.

"It was as though Hayley had been placed in isolation as a punishment for me daring to speak up on her behalf."

In an internal review of Hayley's death, the NHS found that a "hierarchy" among medics deterred junior staff from referring Hayley back to a paediatric intensive care unit in the days before she died.

Ms Stevenson added: "It is to their shame that not one of them saw fit to ask for an urgent second opinion."

Ms Stevenson, 40, told the inquest during an earlier hearing that she believed her daughter could have lived if staff at Birmingham Children's Hospital had listened to her concerns.

The court heard that Hayley underwent palliative surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast weeks after she was born.

She was then flown to Birmingham Children's Hospital for corrective heart surgery on October 14 2009.

Ms Stevenson, who is from Northern Ireland but now lives on Australia's Gold Coast, said the operation was a success and Hayley was transferred to the hospital's paediatric intensive care unit, where she spent 17 days before being moved on to a normal ward.

During the hearing Ms Stevenson said her child had been failed "abominably" by medical staff on ward 11, describing her experience as "brutal".

She said staff at the hospital neglected Hayley, "dumped" her at the end of a ward and ignored the family's concerns about her breathing as she recovered from her surgery.

In a statement issued after the coroner's verdict, the Birmingham Children's Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said: "When Hayley died we recognised that some of her care fell below our usual high standards and for this we offer a heartfelt apology for the distress that has been caused.

"We've taken all the steps possible to learn from this.

"We've gone beyond the recommendations of our investigation and improved the way we do things to ensure that no children or families experience anything like this again."

Recording a narrative verdict at the end of the inquest, Coroner Aidan Cotter said he could only make a finding of neglect if there had been a "gross" failure to provide medical attention which had a sufficient causal connection to the death.

Ruling that the failings in Hayley's care were serious rather than gross, the coroner said the evidence at the inquest had not supported the hospital's finding that junior staff were "uncomfortable" about referring patients to the paediatric intensive care unit.

Listing the failures, Mr Cotter said he was satisfied that Hayley should have been referred to a children's intensive care unit two days before her death.

The coroner was also critical of a delay in providing physiotherapy to Hayley and other aspects of her care, including inaccuracies in medical records.

"Nobody will ever know whether Hayley would have made a successful recovery," the coroner said. "However it is indisputable that Hayley would have had a better chance of survival if she had been referred to the paediatric intensive care unit on November 9."

Medical specialists at law firm Irwin Mitchell, who have represented the family in their three-year battle for answers, said the hospital trust had now fully admitted that a catalogue of failings was responsible for Hayley's "tragic and avoidable" death.

During the inquest, which heard evidence in April, May and September, it emerged that an internal investigation found that a "hierarchical culture" among staff on one ward had contributed to the decision not to return Hayley to intensive care.

Mandy Luckman, a medical law expert at Irwin Mitchell's Birmingham office, said: "Given the trust has now admitted full liability, there needs to be an urgent review to determine whether the system failings put to the trust during the inquest, and as accepted in the trust's own internal investigation report, have now been remedied.

"Hayley's family - and indeed any parent whose child requires critical care at Birmingham Children's Hospital - need reassurance that all clinical and nursing staff now clearly understand the criteria for a young patient needing urgent referral (to intensive care).

"We also hope that the trust has taken steps to remove the old hierarchical culture at the hospital which, in effect, prevented medical staff from doing their job.

"Although nothing can turn back the clock for Paula and her family, who continue to suffer the most unimaginable heartache, they are determined that Hayley's death will not be completely in vain and will hopefully create a catalyst for change in the NHS."

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