Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland pharmacist whose error led to OAP's death avoids jail sentence

By Michael Donnelly

An "overworked" pharmacist who made a tragic error and gave out the wrong pills which killed grandmother of 15 Ethna Walsh was yesterday sentenced to a four-month jail term, suspended for two years.

In the wake of the Antrim Crown Court case of 45-year-old Martin White, the family of Mrs Walsh (67) called on community pharmacists to learn "the hard lessons" from her "unnecessary death" and ensure medicines were dispensed properly.

In the first case of its kind in Northern Ireland, White, of Belfast Road, Muckamore, who was in the profession for 24 years, admitted filling out the wrong prescription for Mrs Walsh on February 6, 2014.

She later died in hospital.

In a statement issued on behalf of Joe Walsh, her husband of 46 years, and their seven daughters, the family said that her death "was due to a series of entirely avoidable errors... the medication was selected in error, labelled in error and accuracy checking failed to disclose the mistake".

However, the family said they welcomed "the resolution of the criminal proceedings arising from the death and acknowledge the admission of culpability and guilt on behalf of Mr White".

The family said that they also hoped "through their misfortune and loss, that some good will come of this tragic event", and that community pharmacists follow new recommendations in preventing dispensing errors, in the sincere hope that "other families will be spared the burden of pain, anguish and loss they have had to shoulder".

Earlier the family had listened intently as Judge Gordon Kerr QC acknowledged that the death of Mrs Walsh, a much-loved wife, mother and grandmother, had had a devastating impact on her family.

The judge said the dispensing of the wrong drug for her lung condition was due to a combination of factors, including a single momentary lapse in concentration.

Judge Kerr said the damage and injury caused by the pharmacist, who had been earning up up to £40,000 but was now on benefits, and never wanted to return to his profession, could not be higher.

However, his degree of culpability, as described in an expert's report, was the result of "poor professional performance, but not professional misconduct".

The judge said that, according to the evidence, his negligence "was more than minimal, but there is no evidence of intentional negligence".

Judge Kerr said that given the cumulative effect of White's guilty plea, his previous good character, loss of reputation and career and permanent financial loss, he did not feel an immediate custodial sentence was necessary.

Prosecution barrister Michael Chambers told an earlier hearing that Mrs Walsh had gone with her husband Joe to the Clear Pharamacy on Antrim's Station Road.

However, instead of being given the steroid medicine Prednisolone, they were mistakenly given a box of Propranolol.

Mr Chambers said that once they arrived home Mrs Walsh took some of the tablets.

Within moments she was having difficulty in breathing. Although she was rushed to hospital, Mrs Walsh later died.

A tired and fatigued White later claimed that in his "cramped working space... he must have mistakenly picked up the Propranolol instead of the Prednisolone... which were side by side on the shelf and have similar branding".

Defence QC John Kearney revealed that since the tragedy White had been too frightened - "frozen in fear" - to return to work, was "racked with guilt and destroyed with remorse", and had been receiving psychiatric help.

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