I have written previously about death by indifference in a previous post, check that out here but if you don’t want to read it in full here is a little summary. It details the deaths of 6 people who had special needs and how failures in the care system surrounding vulnerable patients (particularly non verbal one) lead to their early deaths.
Today I want to talk about Betty Wattenbarger and Coco Rose Bradford, two very young girls with autism who sadly died after seeking medical treatment.
Coco was 6 years old was admitted to The Royal Cornwall Hospital in summer 2017 with stomach problems, It shouldn’t have had any effect on the treatment she received but Coco was autistic. She was vomiting, had bloody loose stools and couldn’t take in any fluids. A quick look on WebMD and it tells me that fluids are most definitely needed based on the symptoms, no matter the cause.
It also to me (no medical training at all) seems like common sense but this didn’t happen, she was sent home only to be brought back to hospital the following day despite the hospital staff telling her parents she was ok. The staff missed several opportunities over the course of 8 days to establish what was wrong with her and save little Coco’s life, but they didn’t. After Coco died it was discovered she had an E-Coli infection and Haemolytic uremic syndrome, the doctors and staff on duty said they found Coco uncooperative and non-compliant when questioned about the little girl’s death. As a child I was terrified of hospitals, doctors, needles and would fight my mom if she tried to give me medicine or clean a wound (this is why I had a piece of glass stuck in my knee for over a year 😳) imagine being autistic and having those feeling plus a million more running around in your head without been able to tell anyone what is wrong. Just like most parents of autistic children Coco’s parents knew something was not right and spoke on her behalf imploring the hospital staff to help her but it fell on deaf ears. The NHS has admitted key failures in Coco’s care following a report.
Sadly Bettys story is very similar, she was 7 years old, she had autism and was nonverbal, in 2019 she was struck by a fever in which was severe enough for her parents to seek emergency medical treatment in which they were advised by a nurse practitioner that it was just the flu and sent home with pain relief. No testing was carried out despite her father displaying concerns about her breathing. Sadly, she died the following day. He dad described the moment she was gone as the light leaving is house.
Her family believe that had it not been for a misdiagnosis she would still be alive today, if they had seen a doctor she would be alive today and if she had been able to tell them how much pain she was in the she would have received the correct level of care and not have died. The Texas medical board have refused to confirm if they are carrying out an investigation.
I speak from experience that when your child cant tell you what is wrong it can be difficult but you learn to know your child like no other and the thought of those that are supposed to help them refuse to listen is terrifying. We are naturally protective over our children but what if no one listens? What power do we have to get those that should be helping to listen to us? It is a terrifying thought. These deaths are becoming more and more frequent. Is it death by indifference? Or death by ignorance? How can a 6-year-old not be treated because she was uncooperative? What 6-year-old on this planet is happy to be poked and prodded by strangers when poorly?
We need to keep talking about Autism. We need to educate teachers, doctors, and nurses. We need to normalize it. It is not a taboo subject, 1 in every 100 people in the UK is diagnosed as autistic. It is not uncommon. Why aren’t we teaching about it in schools?
I work in an office (pre Covid) and often have to have to catch up on new systems and safety procedures so why aren’t medical professionals being made to educate themselves on developments in diagnosis’?
I recently read an article detailing the fact that a doctors surgery in Somerset sent a letter to Voyage Care, a facility in which supports adults with Autism and other learning disabilities.
The letter stated that the adults in their care should all have a DNR agreement in place in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic. In case you don’t know what DNR stands for it means do not resuscitate which basically means that if your heart stops or you can not breathe then medical staff will not issue CPR. No chest compressions. No mouth to mouth. No respirators. No defribrillation.
The ethics of asking anyone to sign or agree to a DNR is shaky at the best of times.
This letter was sent without any consultation with the families of the adults in question. Having any form of learning disability is never a reason to decide not to help someone to survive!
The British medical association states that a blanket DNR targeting one group is completely unethical and unacceptable. But then that raises the question of who authorised this letter to be sent in the first place! There is a huge stigma around those with learning difficulties including Autism as many people do not fully understand. We as a family are still only dipping our toes into the waters of understanding.
I simply can not understand how anyone would think it was ok to send such a letter! Can you imagine either been that ignorant or prejudice that you decide a whole group of people don’t deserve to live? Look at the people who pump themselves full of drugs and alcohol… they deserve transplants and a second chance at life but my boy when he is older would not?
Remember Emma, Mark, Martin, Ted, Tom and Warren? If not scroll back up and take a second look…
In 2007 Mencap published an article called ‘Death by indiffernce’ that highlights the fact there is an institutional discrimination within the NHS which leads to those with learning difficulties getting a substandard quality of care or in some cases none at all.
Emma. July 2004. 26 years old. Emma had a learning disability, this mean she often exhibited challenging behaviour and had difficulty communicating. Emma had Lymphoma B1 cancer. Her survival chance was 50:50. Her treatment was delayed on multiple occasions as she could not consent to it. No pain relief was given. The high court had to get involved and when treatment finally started palliative care was the only course to take.
Mark. August 2003. 30 years old. Mark had a severe learning difficulty and very little speech but he had his own way of communicating with his family. Mark broke his femur and had an operation which resulted in him losing a lot of blood (40% of it to be precise). The staff also failed to give him his epilepsy medication. He was discharged despite still incurrring pain and had to be re-admitted on multiple occasions. It took 3 days for the pain team at the hospital to see him. He died less than 9 weeks after his operation. The medical staff involved did not believe Mark’s family when they told them something was terribly wrong with him.
Martin. December 2005. 43 years old. Martin had a learning disability and no speech. Martin suffered a stroke and was sent to hospital were he contracted pneumonia. The stroke effected his ability to swallow so he could not take in food or water orally. He was placed on a drip which he didn’t handle well and often pulled out. On his second week in hospital it was established that the drip wasn’t providing him with the nutrients he needed. A speech and language therapist visited him repeatedly and advised he should be nil by mouth and other methods of feeding should be introduced. He was in hospital 3 weeks before they decided to intervene and by then it was too late. His veins had collapsed and a PEG feeding tube needed to be inserted but he was too unwell to withstand the operation. Martin went 26 days without food and nutrients before he died. The hospitals policy was to introduce alternative methods of feeding after seven days but they failed to adhere to it costing him his life.
Ted. May 2004. 61 years old. Ted had almost no speech and a severe learning disability. He was admitted to hospital with urine retention requiring a minor operation and remained there for 3 weeks as he suffered a mild heart attack and a post operative infection. His condition was assessed as concerning but the hospital pushed to discharge him back to his residential home. He was sent home and collapsed and died the following day. Following an inquest it was established that he had died from aspiration pneumonia.
Tom. May 2004. 20 years old. Tom had profound and multiple learning disabilities. Tom’s school advised his parents his was distressed but presumed he wasn’t happy there however they knew he was distressed because he was in pain and pushed for medical investigations. A consultant stated further testing was needed but it seemed to be an issue with his digestive system. No further investigation took place. Tom’s doctor decided against a PEG feeding tube because of fears Tom wouldn’t tolerate it. There was no discussion of alternative feeding methods with his parents. After school was over there was nowhere suitable for Tom and he was placed in a psychiatric unit who stated they would assess his needs and act upon them. They didn’t. Tom was losing weight fast and expressing some disturbing self mutilating behaviour in which his parents were sure it was him expressing his pain. Tom was moved to a social services residential home who admitted him to hospital. Tom had an ulcerated oesophagus. The hospital agreed to fit a PEG and the operation was carried out. Tom died before he could receive the nutrition he needed. So many different agencies look after Tom before he died and no actions were carried out resulting in his death.
Warren. September 2004. 30 years old. Warren had a severe learning disability and very little speech but could communicate well with his family. When Warren first showed signs of distress his parents called the doctor out on three occasions. His parents had their suspicions that he had a problem with his appendix or bowel but the doctor said no. A month down the line they called the doctor out again as he was having trouble swallowing and losing weight. They were told it was a virus. As he was not eating he was also not getting epilepsy medication as it was administered via his food. The doctor gave paracetamol and diazepam to calm his seizures. The next day his parents called an out of hours doctor out who told them to take him to hospital for a stomach xray but that nothing was seriously wrong. A few hours later they called him again and an ambulance was sent. Warren’s parents deceived a negative attitude towards Warren by the hospital staff. 2 hours after admission Warren had died. It was his mom who noticed he had stopped breathing. He died of an infection caused by appendicitis and a blockage caused by a paralysed bowel. Warren could not communicate but multiple people refused to listen to his parents concerns despite them knowing him better than anyone.
Remember them… they are only a small selection of people.
It took the deaths of Emma, Mark, Martin, Ted, Tom and Warren to bring about an inquiry into the inequalities within care that people with learning disabilities face.
Death by indifference: 74 deaths and counting…5 years on. Published in 2012 contained multiple case studies. Including the below remember them; Sophie, Kirsty, Lisa Barbara T, Daisy, Chantel, Carole, Kyle, Betty, Maria, Barbara D, Christian, Karen, Clive, Paul, Tina, Brian, Christopher, Ronnie, Kelly, David I, Michael, Alan, Sandra, Anne, Nicholas, David T, Sammy, Susan, Noel, Raj, Jasseke and 15 unnamed people.
Seems like a large number doesn’t it? Well almost 1200 people with learning disabilities die unnecessarily in hospital each year! Mencap have launched a campaign called ‘treat me well’ which advocates in making simple changes which will have a big impact to the way in which hospitals deal with patients with learning difficulties. I have signed up for as much information as possible in regards to the campaign so hopefully we as a family can get involved in making things better because let’s face it… it couldn’t get much worse.