Family sues Northampton General Hospital for negligence after grandmother died from rare infection three days after fall in snow

Northampton General Hospital
Northampton General Hospital

The widower of a devoted grandmother who died from a rare flesh-eating bug is suing Northampton General Hospital for negligence.

Suzanne Gardner, 60, died three days after contracting deadly necrotising fasciitis when she slipped on snow in her driveway in Blisworth and cut her arm.

Her widower, Colin, says the NGH failed to diagnose and operate in time.

The NGH NHS Trust has apologised to the family for “failures and delays” in A&E, the NHS Trust denies liability for her death.

The High Court heard that the infection quickly moved up Mrs Gardner’s arms and into her chest, the court heard. She died at Christmas 2010.

But her family’s lawyers say the popular receptionist’s death could have been avoided if hospital staff had examined her sooner and amputated her arms in time.

Despite being in excruciating pain, she was not deemed a top priority when she went to A&E and, by the time she was diagnosed and the operation began, it was too late, the court heard.

Given the choice of life or death, the devoted gran-of-six would have had no problem agreeing to a double amputation if that had been offered earlier, Mr Gardener said.

“She loved life,” he said. “Her pride and joy were all her children and grandchildren. She never walked away from problems.”

Mrs Gardner cut her elbow when she fell on a Saturday afternoon, but put the pain and chills she felt the following day down to a flare-up of arthritis or a cold.

By Monday, ugly weeping blisters had begun to develop on her hands and arms, and the excruciating pain became too much to bear.

She went to A&E at Northampton General Hospital in the early hours of Tuesday, but despite her presentation, she was not considered a top priority.

Delays in examination and diagnosis meant the decision to amputate did not come until after 9am and even then there was an almost two-hour wait before the operation began.

Mr Gardner had time only to wish her good luck and give her a kiss before she was taken away to have her arms amputated.

But tragically, it was already too late. The bug had travelled up past her shoulder, killing vital tissue in her arm and chest.

The operation was aborted and Mrs Gardner, who was a receptionist in the village GP’s surgery, died that afternoon.

The family’s barrister, Gerwyn Samuel, said the Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust was negligent in not making her a higher priority case.

Casualty staff should have spotted her intense and unremitting pain and had her clinically assessed sooner, he told the judge, Sir David Eady.

Such “severe, significant, unvarying, excruciating pain” – out of proportion with any visible symptoms – is the hallmark of necrotising fasciitis, he said.

Infection expert, Prof Marc Winslet, criticised the delay in preparing Mrs Gardner for, and getting her to, surgery.

Had she been diagnosed earlier and operated on by 7.30am, her life would probably have been saved, he said.

“There was no reason to delay – time costs lives,” he said.

“In the face of necrotising fasciitis is no place for the faint-hearted, because you have to be decisive in your actions and very aggressive in your management.

“You would explain the life threatening nature of the condition and that time is of the essence.

“You have two choices: you either don’t operate, in which case the outcome is inevitable, or you operate immediately, giving the best chance.”

In his career, he had never come across a patient who chose to die when given the option of amputation, he told the court.

Although its barrister, Tom Gibson, apologised to the family for ‘failures and delays’ in A&E, the NHS Trust denies liability for Mrs Gardner’s death.

She presented at the hospital with only “moderate” pain and so was given the correct priority status, it asserts.

The hearing continues.