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EUTHANASIA ON THE NHS?; Family demands inquiry after grandmother receives 'higher dose than Shipman's victims'.

Byline: BY MARTIN SHIPTON CHIEF REPORTER

THE Government is likely to decide this week whether to launch an inquiry into allegations that an 86-year-old Welsh grandmother was killed as part of an unacknowledged "involuntary euthanasia" policy in the NHS.

Olwen Gibbings, who lived at Aberbargoed, near Caerphilly, died in 1996. She was admitted with a leg ulcer. They say her medical records suggest that on the day she died she was given a higher dosage of diamorphine than Dr Harold Shipman used in killing his patients.

Her daughter and son-in-law, Olwyn and Mal Bowen, are convinced that her death was a direct result of large doses of the heroin-based painkiller diamorphine being pumped into her body.

A police investigation into Mrs Gibbings' death resulted in a decision by the Crown Prosecution Service that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the medical staff involved.

But the Bowens maintain there are clear grounds for believing that Mrs Gibbings died unnecessarily.

They have received support from unexpected quarters.

Dr Michael Irwin, who chairs the provoluntary euthanasia group Doctors for Assisted Dying, wrote to Mrs Bowen after she sent him the case papers. His letter stated: "Having carefully reviewed all the documentation you have sent me, I believe that involuntary euthanasia was performed on Mrs Gibbings.

"Involuntary euthanasia can be defined as ending someone's life who could consent but does not. Such an action is indistinguishable from criminal homicide and the claim that the motive for killing is in 'the best interest' of the patient is irrelevant."

Dr Irwin estimates that the deaths of at least 100,000 elderly people in England and Wales each year may be attributed to euthanasia, of which no more than 3,000 are voluntary.

He argues that doctors are able to reconcile euthanasia with their duty to preserve life by relying on the concept of "double effect", under which they give drugs to relieve pain even if the result is to shorten a patient's life.

Dr Irwin's letter to Mrs Bowen concluded: "The 'excuse' of double effect allows the possibility of slow euthanasia, and as such is performed today in general practice, in hospitals and nursing homes, and in hospices throughout the UK."

Mrs Bowen, who lives at Blackwood, near Caerphilly, said: "After my mother's death we obtained her medical records. They suggest that on the day she died she was given a higher dosage of diamorphine than Dr Harold Shipman was in the habit of giving to the patients he killed.

"When she went into hospital she was sitting up in bed reading a magazine. But after they gave her the diamorphine she was gasping for breath.

"On her medical records her age, 86, was circled. That says it all, I think.

"There are also the letters DNR, meaning Do Not Resuscitate. Yet this issue was not discussed with us or with my mother, who had no reason not to want to live. When she went into hospital she thought she was going in for routine treatment to her leg ulcer."

While in the hospital, which has since closed, Mrs Gibbings caught the super-bug infection MRSA. Days after her death, laboratory test results confirmed that she did not have the most virulent strain of the infection, but Type B, which is treatable with antibiotics.

Their strong feeling that Mrs Gibbings had died unnecessarily led the Bowens to set up a telephone helpline for the relatives of elderly patients who died in similar circumstances. They were contacted by hundreds of people from all over Britain, many of them with harrowing stories.

Mrs Bowen said: "When deaths occur, people feel isolated and overwhelmed. If relatives wish to pursue a complaint they find themselves up against a medical bureaucracy that supports the status quo.

"Each case is treated singly and therefore general issues of principle are not considered.

"We believe there is a clear case for a public inquiry into the increasingly widespread belief that involuntary euthanasia is a common occurrence in the NHS."

In 1999 the Conservative MP Ann Winterton introduced a Bill to the House of Commons intended "to halt the slide towards the acceptance and practice of euthanasia by making it clear to doctors that they cannot intentionally bring about the death of their patients by action or omission".

The Bill fell because it ran out of debating time.

Mrs Bowen has passed details of dozens of cases where relatives believe involuntary euthanasia occurred to her MP Don Touhig, a minister at the Wales Office.

Mr Touhig has had one meeting about the matter with Health Minister Hazel Blears.

He has told the Bowens that he expects to have another meeting with her this week when she is likely to respond to his request for an inquiry.

Unexpected decline: wife wants answers

UNTIL 12 years ago, George Hatfield was extremely fit for his age.

A black belt at karate, the mining engineer barely lost a day's work through sickness.

Then he developed flulike symptoms that he couldn't shake off.

Within nine months he was unable to walk across a room and he couldn't climb the stairs at home.

Today, though only 60, George is barely able to communicate and spends much of his time breathing oxygen through a respirator at his home in Blackwood, near Caerphilly.

His wife Julie believes a combination of medical neglect and negligence is responsible for her husband's decline.

Yet attempts to complain over the years have been met by a closing of ranks and a procedural deadlock that makes it impossible to investigate all aspects of George's treatment in one go.

An inspection of George's medical records appears to confirm there has been confusion over his condition between those treating him.

In October 1996 one doctor wrote in his records:

"We had never said he had emphysema and indeed it is not a diagnosis."

Yet a month later another doctor specifically diagnosed emphysema and in February 2000 a third doctor wrote: "Mr Hatfield is an ex-miner and suffers from bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and mild hypertension. He has had these complaints for many years."

Julie said: "For a long time I don't think the doctors were taking his condition seriously enough. They were only treating him for asthma.

"Then in 1998 he was in his car going to the nearby town of Newbridge when he had to turn round and come home because he'd forgotten the way.

"He was referred to a psychiatric clinic where we were told he had dementia. They wanted to put him in a home.

"I had an enormous struggle establishing that he had emphysema and hypoxia."

Hypoxia is a condition which lowers the oxygen supply to the brain, which in turn leads to dementia.

Julie said: "Last year, off my own bat, I bought an oxometer to measure George's oxygen level.

When it is low, I give him the respirator.

"I think his dementia has gone too far now, because he didn't get the extra oxygen he needed.

I can't see there being any improvement. But at least he is still alive. I'm sure he would have been dead by now if I'd allowed him to go into a home."

Julie has no faith in the NHS complaints system.

She said: "It's a waste of time. Your complaint has to be very specific, about a particular doctor at a particular time. You can't look at a complete picture."

Julie's frustration at the complaints system is shared by many, including Glyn Smith of Hirwaun, near Aberdare, who remains unhappy at the treatment his wife received before her death in 1996.

He said: "There must be a public inquiry into the way elderly and vulnerable people are treated.

"As things stand, you usually spend years hitting your head against a brick wall."

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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 17, 2002
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