Aggravated manslaughter charges against anaesthetist

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A self-confessed alcoholic anaesthetist who had lost two previous jobs because of drinking but had never been reported to the Belgian medical oversight body, faces a three-year jail sentence for aggravated manslaughter in France, following a  botched an emergency Caesarean operation.

The operation left a young British woman in an irreversible come, a French court has heard. She died four days later.

The Guardian reports that Dr Helga Wauters is accused of pushing a breathing tube into Xynthia Hawke’s oesophagus instead of her windpipe and failing to react even when Hawke turned blue, vomited, cried out in pain and went into cardiac arrest.

A colleague spoke of smelling alcohol on Wauters’ breath and other medics said she seemed incapable of reacting even as alarms sounded in the operating theatre as the incident unfolded in 2014. Hawke’s baby was born healthy on 26 September 2014, but she was left in an irreversible coma and died four days later.

Jean-Pierre Tresmontan, the police chief who investigated the tragedy, said a search of Wauters’ home found 14 empty vodka bottles. A plastic bottle filled with a mix of water and vodka was discovered in her car. The court was told that the anaesthetist was about to lose her job at the maternity clinic in Orthez, south-west France, because of concerns about her drinking.

Wauters admitted “part of the responsibility” for the botched operation but blamed a faulty ventilator in the operating theatre for Hawke’s death. Experts later reported that the machine was in perfect working order.

Wauters, a Belgian national who is said to have been a “brilliant” medical student, admitted to police that she had a drinking problem and had spent several periods in rehab. Investigators found she had lost two previous jobs because of her alcoholism but she had not been reported to the Belgian Order of Medicine or prevented from working as a doctor.

Wauters faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter, and if convicted she could be jailed for three years. She told the court she was invoking her right to silence but wished to make a statement in which she admitted to having been an alcoholic “for several years”.

While scrubbing up, a colleague noticed Wauters’ that breath smelled of alcohol, the court heard. Once in the operating theatre, Wauters gave the surgeon the go-ahead to begin the caesarean and the baby was born at 10.22pm.

Hawke did not see the child as she was unconscious at this point. There were several medics present including Wauters as well as a surgeon/obstetrician, a paediatrician, three nurses and a midwife. But when Hawke opened her eyes, began crying out in pain and succeeded in removing the oxygen tube, witnesses say Wauters was slow to respond. When Hawke vomited, Wauters also failed to react and one of the nurses had to wipe Hawke’s face and turned her head, the court was told.

Within minutes Hawke’s oxygen level had fallen to around 5%, where 95%-100% is normal. When the heart monitor flatlined, setting alarm bells ringing, one of the medics present decided to call the emergency services.

Although the surgeon noticed Hawke’s skin and uterus were a blueish colour, suggesting oxygen deprivation, when he made the first cut at around 10.20, and other staff reported the patient was turning blue, it was not until 11.21 that the emergency services were called. They reported an atmosphere of “panic” in the operating theatre and the impression that Wauters and her colleagues were waiting for someone else to act.

Witnesses said there was vomit in the breathing tube, suggesting it had been placed in the wrong passage, and a bruise in Hawke’s oesophagus. That and the fact that she was conscious during the caesarean and had catastrophic oxygen levels also pointed to the tube being wrongly placed.

Psychological reports on Wauters found she minimised her alcohol problem and “did not accept the facts”. She told investigators she had been drinking that day but insisted: “I was not drunk. I was in possession of all my faculties.”

The case continues.

 

Full report in The Guardian

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