Bowel Cancer patient dies from sepsis following surgery

Sepsis is in the news. We hear many stories about how many times hospitals fail to recognise and treat the condition before it is too late; and the case of MB is one such sad tale.

M lived with his wife in Aikton near Wigton, having moved there in 2012 to retire and be close to their daughter. When he was 66 he had taken part in the bowel cancer screening programme and sadly was found to be suffering from cancer. The cancer was treatable but tragically the treatment M received at the Cumberland Infirmary cost him his life.

Following preliminary tests, M had surgery on 1 May 2013 to remove the tumour in the bowel and to resect the remaining sections of the bowel. Although in good spirits in the immediate aftermath of the operation his condition worsened and he became desperately ill.

Various tests were carried out to see what was wrong, but M continued to deteriorate. He was showing signs of sepsis, but despite this the hospital staff failed to follow their own protocol for dealing with patients suspected of sepsis – the “Guideline for the Initial Management of the Adult Patient with Severe Sepsis” published by the Hospital Trust in 2010.

After a scan had shown that M’s bowel was leaking into his abdomen, the surgeon Mr Hinson decided that he needed an emergency operation on 5th May to repair the leak.

Unfortunately that operation was too late, and M sadly died the following day. A post mortem examination determined that he had died from multiple organ failure brought about by the leak from the bowel.

An inquest was held, concluding in August 2014, and the Coroner gave a narrative verdict, commenting that there had been peritonitis from the bowel leak, and that the emergency surgery could have been performed sooner.

It was very difficult for M’s widow and her daughter to come to terms with what had happened, and they instructed David Dawson of Price Slater Gawne to investigate what had happened. David obtained a report from a Specialist Consultant Colorectal Surgeon, who confirmed that those looking after M had failed to recognise at an early stage that M’s deterioration was due to a failure of the bowel operation, causing fluid to leak from his bowel into his abdomen. This lead to severe infection which required the Cumberland Infirmary to follow its own policy on the management of patients with sepsis. The report confirmed that M ought to have been given antibiotics, and that had his condition been reviewed promptly by the surgeons the emergency surgery should have taken place at least 24 hours earlier.

The expert confirmed that if the emergency surgery had taken place the day before, then it was more than likely that M would have survived.

A claim for compensation was notified to the Hospital Trust in early 2015. The claim was met with a denial of responsibility, and so after extensive further work obtaining documents that the Trust had failed to disclose (not just to David, but also to HM Coroner for the inquest); Court action was started in the spring of last year.

When finally the formal defence to the claim was received, the Trust continued to deny responsibility, asserting that the treatment of M was not negligent overall. However, a concession was finally made that the emergency surgery ought to have taken place earlier. Despite this, the hospital maintained that even if the second operation had taken place earlier, it made no difference as M would not have survived anyway.

David continued pressing until finally the Hospital, through its solicitors, indicated that after all, they were prepared to admit responsibility and settle the claim. Earlier this year, a significant 5 figure award was agreed, and the Hospital also agreed to provide a formal letter of apology to M’s widow and her daughter.

As we approach the 4th anniversary of M’s death, it is a relief to M’s widow that this battle is now over and she has had answers to the many questions she had about her late husband’s care in the hands of the staff at the Cumberland Infirmary.

Deaths as a result of sepsis can be avoided but there are still too many – the UK Sepsis Trust reports that there are 37,000 annual deaths from Sepsis in the UK alone, and that the mortality rate for those admitted to critical care with sepsis is 35%. Even those who survive face many problems with a very long recovery time.

M’s widow hopes that her loss will not simply be another statistic and that lessons will be learned from the problems that so tragically resulted in M’s death. They had looked forward to a long and happy retirement, and those hopes were dashed as a result of the negligent treatment M received following what was supposed to be life saving surgery. She commented “Losing my husband under very tragic circumstances was very traumatic, however the compassionate and professional support provided by David Dawson made seeking justice for my husband a more bearable process.”

As a postscript – although the Hospital, through its solicitors, agreed to provide a formal letter of apology in January 2017, at the time of writing it has still not been received.

This story was reported in Carlisle News & Star