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My son was starved to death in hospital, mother tells inquest

Published 26/09/2016

Sean Paul Carnahan, 22, who died in July 2013 after five months in Belfast City Hospital, with his mother Tracey
Sean Paul Carnahan, 22, who died in July 2013 after five months in Belfast City Hospital, with his mother Tracey

The mother of a tragic young chef has told an inquest she believes he was starved to death during a prolonged stay in hospital.

Sean Paul Carnahan, from Beechmount Grove in west Belfast, died in July 2013 - five months after he was admitted to Belfast City Hospital with a severe brain injury.

Belfast Coroner's Court was told the 22-year-old weighed just 32kg when a post-mortem examination was carried out.

In a statement, his mother Tracey Carnahan said : " I found that I was fighting daily with the staff in order for my son to be fed."

Mr Carnahan was taken into hospital in March 2013 after a failed suicide attempt.

He spent a month in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) before being transferred to a respiratory ward.

While Mrs Carnahan had no concerns about the level of care provided in the ICU, she alleged there were delays in re-attaching dislodged feeding tubes while he was on the ward.

"Over Easter I do not think he was fed or hydrated properly," she added.

Mrs Carnahan also claimed the respiratory ward medics were ill-equipped t o deal with her son's complex needs, which included severe agitation and difficulty swallowing.

"It was all old people," she added. "I knew Sean Paul needed proper care."

The court was told Mrs Carnahan visited her son every day and believed he had been showing signs of response, giving "thumbs up" and "high five" gestures.

She claimed staff were "dismissive" of her concerns and that allegations of malnourishment were put to a social worker during a meeting on the ward.

Mrs Carnahan said: "I was saying about him being starved while on the ward and I said to a social worker from the ward, and she says 'no comment'."

Giving evidence from the witness box, Mrs Carnahan described her son as an aspiring young footballer who had worked in restaurants across Belfast. He also spent a year on the Channel Island of Guernsey, she said.

He tried to take his life hours after returning from a house party in west Belfast where he had abused alcohol and legal highs, it emerged.

Wiping away tears, Mrs Carnahan said she had been unaware of the dangers of legal highs and did not believe her son wanted to die.

"I just think it was a moment of madness," she said. "I just think he did not know what he was doing."

According to medical records Mr Carnahan weighed 74kgs on admission to hospital but by the time a post-mortem examination was carried out, his weight had fallen to 32 kilos.

The most dramatic drop occurred during the first month while he was being treated in ICU, the court was told.

A neuro-pathologist who examined Mr Carnahan attributed the cause of death as bronchopneumonia due to ischaemic brain injury as a result of his failed suicide bid.

He said death from pneumonia would have been a likely outcome, regardless of weight.

Dr Brian Herron said: "The weight loss is certainly something to consider but I think he would have died had he been of normal weight."

The pathologist described the brain injury as unusual and said it affected the central part of the brain which controls involuntary actions.

It would have caused agitation and affected swallowing as well as the workings of the stomach.

Meanwhile, ward sister Lesley Carroll said the level of agitation meant it was difficult to feed Mr Carnahan but that every effort was made to help him.

Ms Carroll said: "He did have respiratory issues and that was something we were able to attend to. His level of agitation was something I personally had never witnessed in 20 years of nursing.

"Everybody did try their best. His level of agitation should be quite severe from time to time."

Opening the hearing, coroner Joe McCrisken described the five-day inquest as a fact-finding inquiry aimed at establishing the truth.

He said it was not a trial, either criminal or civil, and that nobody who gave evidence was on trail.

The coroner said: "There is no question of me attributing any blame or responsibility for Mr Carnahan's death.

"That's simply not the function of this inquest."

Throughout the hearing, Mrs Carnahan was supported by family and friends who had packed the public gallery of courtroom number eight in the Laganside complex.

Some of the supporters wore T-shirts bearing the slogan "Justice for Sean Paul".

The hearing has been adjourned until Tuesday.

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