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Tuesday 24 October 2017

Terry Prone: Don't patronise mothers, just listen to them

Once you've seen it, it stays with you, that photo showing a gorgeous pale-faced baby surrounded by white towelling. The baby -- Adam O'Connor -- is less than three months old in the shot, but he looks out with a curious tired sadness unexpected in such a little mite.

The HSE apologised yesterday to the child's parents for "the upset experienced in the course of their dealings with Cork University Hospital."

They couldn't apologise to Adam, the reason for those dealings, because Adam is dead. He died two days after being diagnosed with acute leukaemia. Three months after he was born into a world of pain. Because that's what life was like for the serious little tot. All inexplicable pain and little or no joy.

His mother knew something was wrong with Adam from the day he was born, but had to accept the reassurances of hospital staff. Five weeks later the little boy was uttering piercing cries of pain. Like any good parents, Julie and Tom O'Connor took action. They brought him to the experts.

The experts told them Adam might be having a tough time, but that's what happens when an infant gets colic and constipation. Julia and Tom O'Connor did what any other parents would do. They took their baby home and tried to comfort him. But then they spotted other symptoms.

And went back to the experts: the doctors. One of whom wrote on Adam's chart, not about him, but about Julia. "Mum would want to relax. Mum would want to go home and enjoy baby more."

"Mum" didn't have a name. "Mum" was a caricature: a cartoon of an over-anxious parent inflating colic into something more serious, when she should have been at home, cuddling her delightful son and not getting panicky. The patronising tone is mind-boggling.

Here was a young mother who couldn't enjoy her baby because her baby was screaming in pain 12 hours at a time. To suggest she relax in that context was daft.

The little baby suffered and suffered, and so did his parents. They were the best of parents. They carried their screaming infant back and forth to the GP and to the hospital. They rang helplines. On two visits to CUH, they didn't get to see a paediatric consultant. A junior doctor dealt with Adam. Suppositories were prescribed for him. They didn't help. They couldn't have as Adam was dying of undiagnosed leukaemia.



SUFFERING

When his parents brought him to Mallow General Hospital, someone there realised how sick he was and rushed him to CUH by ambulance. It was the right action, but it was too late to save him.

On February 17, 2009, his short life came to an end with his two loving parents by his side. They were left with photographs of a beautiful infant with a face filled with suffering and resignation, neither of which should ever be detectable in a photo of a child.

The hospital has now apologised. A report has identified the failures that left this child to die. They are many, those failures, and hospital management will no doubt fix every last one of them.

The one failure that can't be fixed by hospital management is the simplest one: the failure to listen to a mother. Mothers are the experts when it comes to their babies. Yes, some are over-anxious.

But the old mantra in medicine is: "When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras." In other words, look for the obvious, not the obscure.

In Adam's case, the obvious was serious illness. The obscure possibility was a fussy mother. The medics blamed Julia O'Connor rather than listen to her. It's difficult to forgive such a failure.

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