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Doctors have destroyed us, says mother of hyponatraemia victim as she weeps at inquest

Alan and Jennifer Roberts hold pictures of daughter Claire outside court
Alan and Jennifer Roberts hold pictures of daughter Claire outside court
Lauren Harte

By Lauren Harte

The mother of a young girl at the centre of the Hyponatraemia Inquiry broke down in tears yesterday as she accused the Belfast Health Trust of showing no empathy towards her "destroyed" family in the two decades since her daughter's death.

A distraught Jennifer Roberts made her comments on the fourth day of the probe into the death of her only daughter Claire on October 23, 1996, at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.

The nine-year-old from east Belfast died from hyponatraemia, which is caused by lack of sodium in the bloodstream, having been admitted two days earlier with vomiting.

The original death certificate gave her cause of death as cerebral oedema (a form of brain inflammation) and status epilepticus, but this was called into question by a UTV documentary.

This week's hearing is the latest attempt by Alan and Jennifer Roberts to uncover the truth about Claire's death, which was the subject of an earlier inquest in 2006.

The Hyponatraemia Inquiry, headed by Sir John O'Hara QC, ruled in 2012 that her death had been preventable and ordered a new inquest, which started on Monday.

Sir John ruled that medical professionals were involved in a cover-up following the tragedy.

Yesterday Claire's parents gave their emotional account of the run-up to their daughter's death to Coroner Joe McCrisken in Belfast's Laganside Courthouse.

Describing Claire as the "most beautiful, happy, loving and energetic young girl", they recalled how she had spent her last weekend with her family, including bringing flowers to church on Sunday for the harvest festival.

Mr Roberts said the first indication his daughter was unwell came the next day when she returned home from school and vomited several times, prompting them to call their GP, who advised them to take her to hospital. Mr Roberts took issue with previous medical evidence that Claire, who had learning difficulties, was in "an altered level of consciousness" on admission to hospital, saying that she was "talking as normal".

The following morning her parents had expected to find her "jumping on the bed" and able to return home.

Later that day Mrs Roberts witnessed her daughter have a "frightening" seizure, but said medical staff did not examine Claire when she informed them of the incident.

Mrs Roberts said a nurse told her to write it down on the medical sheet.

The couple left their daughter at 9.30pm on October 22.

"We thought she was sleeping, but she did not wake up again," her mother recalled.

Her husband added: "At no point did a doctor pull us to one side to express concern about Claire.

"No urgency was shown and no alarm bells rang.

"No one had a grasp of what was happening, but by 11pm Claire was at the point of no return."

Several hours later the couple were contacted and told to return to the hospital immediately as Claire was having difficulty breathing.

A CT scan had confirmed that she was brain dead, and she died that evening when her life support was turned off.

Mr Roberts said: "The doctors didn't monitor her.

"They were going down the wrong avenue and treating her with inappropriate drugs.

"The Belfast Trust has had every opportunity to be open and honest with us and they have failed us as parents."

His wife sobbed: "The trust have shown no empathy towards us in 22 years.

"The doctors have destroyed us.

"No parent should have to wait 22 years to learn how their child died, because love never dies."

Mark Robinson, counsel for the Belfast Trust, told the inquest that the trust had done everything it could to assist and co-operate with the proceedings.

Earlier in the day a former leading consultant paediatrician at Singleton Hospital in Swansea told the inquest that Claire should have been monitored more closely by doctors in her final hours.

Dr Dewi Evans said medics should have been "obsessive" about taking regular blood tests, monitoring Claire's fluid and sodium levels and her neurological status "to determine if she was getting better or worse".

He said this would have been a "routine box-ticking" exercise for any child in hospital at the time.

Dr Evans agreed with family barrister Michael McCrea that he would have "pressed the panic button" when Claire's sodium reached "extremely low and very worrying" levels.

Dr Ian Maconochie, a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington in London, said that the deaths of several children in Northern Ireland hospitals have "had a significant impact on the practice of administering intravenous fluids to children".

Mr McCrisken is due to deliver his findings this morning and told Claire's parents that he hoped that they would leave court feeling they had had their questions about her death finally answered, having waited "far too long".

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