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IN THE week that patient deaths at a Scots hospital were linked to overworked staff, a family open their hearts about the death of their child there.

Sarah Smith and Gordon Cleland want a public inquiry to determine if the death of their baby Britney could have been avoided and to spare other families their agony after a catalogue of medical failures.

On Friday, a report revealed that deaths in the intensive care unit at Dundee's Ninewells Hospital more than doubled when staff were overworked.

The same day, a former patient there, little Britney, was buried.

The eight-month-old lost her fight for life after three weeks of tests and treatment at the hospital, failed to diagnose classic meningitis symptoms.

Despite her family's desperate pleas that she was seriously sick, staff:

Dismissed a rash and purple discolouration as an allergic reaction to milk or sticking plaster.

Failed to transfer her to a specialist children's hospital until she was too ill to be moved.

Did not call in paediatric experts from another hospital until the dying infant was beyond help.

Lost her X-rays.

Allowed an unknown 10-year-old boy to push the desperately ill infant around the ward in a pram.

Failed to clean up her vomit or change Britney as she lay days from death.

And, despite sickness and high temperatures, nurses gave mum Sarah out-of-date milk to feed her.

Last night, 20-year-old Sarah sobbed: "I just can't believe Britney has gone.

"We'd been telling the hospital all along, something was very wrong. But they seemed unconcerned even when her temperature went shooting through the roof and she developed an angry purple rash."

Gordon, 38, a welding contractor, said: "Every time we tried to get answers from the doctors and nursing staff, we were shrugged off.

"I kept pointing out Britney's rash, her high temperature, the fact she was crying all the time and constantly being sick. But not one nurse or doctor gave us the same answer.

"Just hours before Britney died, the hospital was still minimising the seriousness of her condition. We were told there was nothing to worry about.

"It was only when our baby was actually dying, the hospital finally told us they didn't have the facilities to save her, but she was then too sick to be moved elsewhere."

Doctors advised the family that Britney was only being kept alive by life-support systems and they had to take the decision to switch the machinery off.

Britney was put in her mother's arms, and with her family around her, she died within minutes.

Sarah said: "I wouldn't wish those minutes on anyone. We all cried and held each other until Britney stopped breathing.

"I didn't want to let her go. But after we said our goodbyes, the nurses took her away. We made sure she had her favourite teddy bear and we left with her tiny bundle of clothes.

"We were so shell-shocked, it took some time for the full horror to sink in.

"Now we just want to know if she could have been saved and we want a full inquiry so no other family will have to face the same tragedy."

If diagnosed in time, the disease can be successfully treated with penicillin.

According to Britney's parents, their daughter showed every symptom, including fever, floppiness and a rash which does not fade when pressed with a glass.

Gordon said "The whole family were concerned Britney was getting worse. But the hospital kept telling us she had a viral infection, or that she had a milk rash.

"When we pointed out that babies didn't usually get a milk rash on their face and head, we were told the rash was a reaction to the sticky tape holding the intravenous drip tube.

"I looked at her case notes, and saw they were only treating her with Calpol and paracetamol."

Britney was admitted to Ninewells with high temperature. She'd been crying constantly and couldn't keep food down. She grew sicker and alarmed her family until, desperately ill, she was moved to a high- dependency baby unit.

Doctors said it was just a "precaution", there was no need for panic and they suspected a "viral" infection.

But hours later, around 5.40am on Thursday, July 6, Ninewells staff called Gordon and Sarah to come to the unit.

Doctors broke the news that Britney was critical, and a team of paediatric specialists were on their way from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

A short time later, Britney was put on a ventilator and the family were told she was too sick to be moved to Edinburgh. Just before 10am, the medical team told the family nothing more could be done and placed Britney in Sarah's arms to die.

Tayside Police took away her body and a post mortem gave the cause of death as septicaemia, blood poisoning - a form of the killer meningicoccal bug.

Gordon said: "We could see our baby was dying in front of our eyes. Why couldn't the doctors? On several occasions, we were reduced to tears of frustration. But we still didn't get any answers.

"It's an unbearable burden, wondering if our baby girl would still be alive today if she hadn't been so badly let down by people who were supposed to care for her."

Sarah said: "At times, Britney was very sick and feverish. I repeatedly found her lying in dirty nappies and clothes with vomit all over them. I lost count of the times I had to wash and change her and the bedding."

She recalled one visit: "I went over to Britney's cot, and she was gone. I ran around trying to find her, and spotted a little boy pushing Britney in a pram. I had no idea who he was. I was terribly upset. I couldn't believe staff had allowed it."

Britney was the couple's first child and was born at Ninewells last October. Sarah said: "Britney was full of mischief and fun. Whenever she saw us, she'd giggle and put her arms up for a cuddle."

She was buried at a Forfar cemetery on Friday.

Sarah is pregnant again and has been told to expect a girl.

Gordon said: "The night before Britney's funeral, a doctor from our GP's surgery came to the house and told us he'd been called by officials from Ninewells.

"We were told that Ninewells had asked us not to speak out about Britney's death and they would meet with us in six weeks' time. When we were asked whether Sarah would want to have our baby at Ninewells in September, I was aghast. I will never allow any of my family within 10 miles of Ninewells again."

Last night, a spokeswoman for Ninewells Hospital said: "Britney died as the result of a sudden and overwhelming infection. Until the doctors who cared for her study the results of the post-mortem, it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Britney's family would like donations sent to Meningitis Research Foundation, 133 Gilmore Place, Edinburgh, EH3 9PP.
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Author:Scott, Marion
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 16, 2000
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