Woman awarded €450,000 after pelvic operation

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

A WOMAN has been awarded €450,000 damages by a High Court judge who found she was the victim of “grave medical malpractice” when, unknown to her, a “wholly unnecessary” symphysiotomy procedure was carried out on her when having her first baby at the age of 18 at a Drogheda hospital.

The procedure left Olivia Kearney with a lifetime of pain, caused serious damage to her psychological health and frustrated her desire to have more children, Mr Justice Sean Ryan said.

The Catholic ethos and mode of thinking that prevailed about the symphysiotomy procedure that Mrs Kearney underwent in 1969 is “mercifully a matter of history”, he said.

The procedure involved making the pelvis larger by cutting through cartilage binding the pubic bones together so as to accommodate a baby’s head. It was carried out on Ms Kearney, now aged 60, at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda in October 1969 by Dr Gerard Connolly, since deceased.

The judge found the evidence did not establish that Dr Connolly had followed general and approved practice of the time. Dr Connolly’s medical notes at the time did not even contain the essential medical justification for symphysiotomy – disproportion of the pelvis in relation to the size of the baby’s head.

In Mrs Kearney’s case, there was no need for the symphysiotomy because subsequent measurements indicated Ms Kearney’s pelvis was normal and there was therefore no need to enlarge the pelvis, he found.

Mrs Kearney, of Castlebellingham, Co Louth, had sued the hospital owners, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who denied her claims and contended the procedure was justified in the circumstances at the time.

Mrs Kearney’s son was delivered by Caesarean section on October 19th, 1969. The symphysiotomy was carried out afterwards and left her in such a condition that she was unable to get out of bed to see the baby until six days later when her husband took her in a wheelchair to see their child, the court heard.

The judge said the hospital had argued the symphysiotomy procedure arose because there was a significant body of medical opinion at the time that was anti-Caesarean operations.

The reason for this, apparently, was that a woman could only be expected to undergo a relatively limited number of such operations and it was anticipated they would therefore need a few of them in the expectation women would have a lot of children, he said.

In such circumstances, doctors would have to advise women not to have any more children, which meant they might “be tempted to use artificial contraception” or even look for sterilisation, the judge said.

This was sufficient to justify doctors’ hostility to Caesareans and make them favourable to symphysiotomy, which facilitated future pregnancies, the judge noted.

The court heard, in the first three months after her son was born, Mrs Kearney spent most of her time in bed. The pain in her pelvis spread all over her body and it was a year before she was fully mobile and able to return to work.

She did not bond with her baby and over the years sought many forms of treatment for back pain and lower abdominal pain and was also depressed, the court heard.

The judge said Dr Connolly had altered the course of her life irrevocably by carrying out “this unnecessary operation”. It had left her with a life of pain, discomfort and embarrassment and she was an unfortunate example of the illness associated with symphysiotomy.

Mrs Kearney’s reasonable expectation of enjoying a normal sexual and emotional relationship was destroyed and her desire to have more children was similarly frustrated, he said. Her self-esteem had been shattered and she blamed herself for the inadequacies and disappointments that resulted, he noted.

She did not know she had had a symphysiotomy until nearly 33 years later when she heard a radio programme discussion in which women described their experiences following such operations.

“That revelation in 2002 that her life had been transformed by a deliberate act and not by natural causes brought its own extra quotient of misery,” the judge said.

Her legal action was brought after 2002 but the hospital secured a High Court order striking out her claim on grounds of delay in bringing the proceedings. She successfully appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. In that context, Mr Justice Ryan said it was disturbing to consider how close “this victim of grave medical malpractice came to being sacrificed on the altar of fair procedures.”