A grandmother-of-six from Northamptonshire who died after she contracted a rare flesh-eating bug when she slipped in snow would have survived if medics had done their job properly, a High Court judge has ruled.
Suzanne Gardner, 60, of Blisworth, a part-time GP receptionist, was struck by necrotising fasciitis when she slipped on her driveway while going to collect a cake from her car and cut her arm on December 17, 2010.
The infection quickly spread up her arms and into her chest and killed her within three days.
Following her death, her widower, Colin, sued Northampton General Hospital, blaming it for a delayed diagnosis that led to his wife’s death.
And today, High Court judge Sir David Eady found that the trust was to blame and awarded Mr Gardner full compensation for the loss of his wife of 40 years.
Giving judgment, the judge said Mrs Gardner’s death was the result of a fatal delay at Northampton General’s A&E department.
“A greater sense of urgency was clearly required than that displayed on the night in question,” he said.
The trial heard 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 the Monday, blisters had begun to develop on her hands and arms, and the pain became too much to bear.
She went to A&E at Northampton General Hospital in the early hours of December 21, but despite her excruciating pain was not considered a top priority.
The court heard that the wait saw the opportunity for a life-saving double-amputation pass her by.
She died that afternoon.
Mr Gardner told the court his wife would have had no trouble agreeing to the potentially life-saving operation if it had been offered sooner.
He said: “She loved life. Her pride and joy were all her children and grandchildren. She never walked away from problems.”
Infection expert Prof Marc Winslet also criticised the delay in preparing Mrs Gardner for, and getting her to, surgery.
“There was no reason to delay - time costs lives,” he said.
“You have two choices: you either don’t operate, in which case the outcome is inevitable, or you operate immediately, giving the best chance.”
Contesting his claim, NGH claimed Mrs Gardner had presented with only moderate pain and so was dealt with in good time.
But Sir David found against the trust. She should have been seen by a doctor sooner and blood tests would then have followed, he said.
The results would have led a competent microbiologist to diagnose the infection no later than 5am, he said.
Sir David said: “Had Mrs Gardner been treated non-negligently during and following her arrival at the hospital, she could have been ready for an amputation well before 7.30am and would then probably have survived.
“That is, she would have lived but for the delay caused by the breaches of duty identified.”
He continued: “I find on a balance of probability that Mrs Gardner would have survived an emergency operation for bilateral amputation and debridement for which she could and should have been ready no later than 6.10am, just over five-and-a-half hours after she arrived.”
After the hearing, solicitors for Mrs Gardner’s family said an x-ray of Mrs Gardner’s elbow showed signs of an infection; however a doctor failed to recognise the gas under the skin.
Beacause her condition was not diagnosed, she was not provided with fluids or oxygen and antibiotics were administered late. Along with initial failures at triage, delays in even considering an infection as well as delays in taking Mrs Gardner to surgery led to two cardiac arrests.
Once admitted for surgery, surgeons considered the infection had spread too far and she was beyond saving.
After the decision was made to terminate the operation, Mr Gardner was not informed of his wife’s serious condition, the solicitors said, leaving Mrs Gardner to die on her own.
After Mr Gardner said: “Suzanne was wonderful, she was looking forward to her upcoming retirement and enjoyed cooking Sunday lunches and spending time with our family. It has been a truly horrific time for us, the lack of care Suzanne received from the hospital led to her being taken too soon.”
Andrea Rusbridge, the family’s lawyer at the national law firm, Access Legal from Shoosmiths, said: “Mrs Gardner was a huge part of the lives of her whole family, and her loss has been devastating to them. I’m pleased to have been able to help Mr Gardner and his family through this difficult process and to help him find answers.
“I hope that with this judgement, changes will be implemented in NGH’s A&E to make sure patients are properly assessed as soon as they arrive and that more lives are saved from this terrifying infection and other illnesses as a result.”
A spokeswoman for Northampton General Hospital apologised on behalf of the NHS trust.
She said: “We express our sincere condolences to Mrs Gardner’s family and are deeply sorry for their loss.
“We regret that we failed to provide her with the best possible care that we strive to give to all our patients at all times.
“We are pleased the matter has now been resolved and we accept the court’s decision.”