The doctor who destroyed my life: ‘He was charming. He was complimentary. He referred to my illness as a fascinating mystery’

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Danielle O’Neill speaks about Michael Watt, the former neurologist at centre of Northern Ireland’s biggest patient recall scandal

Shaking as she walks out of the Law Society headquarters on to a Belfast street, Danielle O’Neill grips a five-volume report about a doctor who she says destroyed her life.

It’s a humid Tuesday afternoon and she wipes away tears, having just listened to the findings of an inquiry into the circumstances that led to Northern Ireland’s biggest-ever patient recall.

More than 5,000 ex-patients of former consultant neurologist Michael Watt — once lauded as the “top man” in his field — were contacted for reassessment due to safety concerns about his work at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where he was based for more than two decades.

Danielle (39) was among the first tranche to undergo a review in May 2018, and has been at the centre of a campaign fighting for answers in a scandal that was shrouded in secrecy.

I went from having a great job and about to start a family to someone on 35 pills a day and housebound

It transpired that Watt misdiagnosed her with epilepsy and prescribed the wrong medication for five years, which left her “like a zombie”.

Others were incorrectly informed they had life-limiting conditions such as motor neurone disease and multiple sclerosis and told to get their affairs in order, all while they were made reliant on a cocktail of high dosage mediation.

Yet, like so many of his patients, Danielle had “total trust” in the Belfast consultant and recalls her first appointment in 2014 when he pledged to “fix” her.

“He was charming. He was complimentary. He referred to my illness as a ‘fascinating mystery’ and told me he would do all he could to get me well and back to work.

“Instead, I went from having a great job and about to start a family to someone on 35 pills a day and housebound.”

Standing in a nook under the six-storey building, following the unveiling of the long-awaited inquiry report, the north Belfast woman searches in her handbag for a cigarette and composes herself.

Two hours earlier, inquiry chairman Brett Lockhart privately briefed her and other patients about “numerous failings” in a NHS system that enabled Watt – he can no longer practice medicine after removing himself from the medical register last year – to go unchecked.

Exposed in the 1,000-page report is a culture in which Watt’s “potentially aberrant practice” took place in “plain sight” of his consultant colleagues who never raised the alarm. In the end, a whistleblower GP alerted authorities.

I’ve just spoken to a couple whose son died from drugs toxicity. He was treated for epilepsy when he didn’t have epilepsy

There was a “catalogue of missed opportunities” by authorities to act on concerns going back years, Lockhart’s team discovered.

“I can’t even read it, it’s just words swimming on a page,” O’Neill says quietly amid the noisy clicking of press photographers’ cameras and sound checks for TV interviews on the pavement beside us.

“But everything Brett said in that room is true. We were failed.

“It was horrific listening to him detail the catalogue of errors that surrounded Michael Watt. But it’s such a significant day, as we finally feel vindicated and we know we didn’t do anything wrong.

“I’ve just spoken to a couple whose son died from drugs toxicity. He was treated for epilepsy when he didn’t have epilepsy. I keep thinking, ‘this could have been me’.”

I first met O’Neill in a specially adapted flat four years ago when she contacted me about a dossier of reports she had compiled on her medical history and complaints to the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Watt’s employer.

Insisting on remaining anonymous for the interview – even straightening her curly hair for a silhouette photograph – she meticulously laid out piles of legal documents in the living room.

Six months before the scandal broke in May 2018, she approached the former MLA Nichola Mallon of the SDLP after receiving a letter from the trust about a highly invasive procedure Watt performed that left her “falling down stairs”.

The procedure is known as an epidural blood patch – the patient’s own blood is injected into their lower spine to relieve pain. She was among dozens to subsequently receive a written apology from trust chiefs admitting it was carried out unnecessarily.

She and Mallon began searching for answers from the health service in late 2017.

“We were met with a wall of silence.”

Reflecting on the catastrophic consequences of the blood-patch procedure, she becomes emotional on Tuesday.

“I just remember lying on the bed and him telling me to get into the foetal position. He had taken the blood himself and went round the back of me, making a quip about how many tattoos he had injected into – I have a tattoo on my lower back – and started to inject the blood. I was crying so sore and gripped the cot rail so tightly that my knuckles were white.

“I was telling him of the horrendous pressure I was feeling in my body but he was so blasé.

“After that, I couldn’t walk properly and started falling down stairs. I couldn’t do anything for myself. It was as if I was a child.

“It’s almost as if I don’t know that person who I was back then. I remember crying about that. I asked my partner and my mum: who did the cooking? Who did the shopping? Who fed me?

The quest for answers has become the main focus of my life. It was as if he had a superhero status as a doctor that allowed him to go unregulated

“I was gone. I was thinking to myself: I don’t know this person – and then that got me even more upset. Physically I’m fine now but psychologically I don’t think these scars will ever heal.”

It emerged last month that almost one in five of those who attended their recall appointments had an “insecure diagnosis”.

Watt was never suspended by his employer and instead put on “gardening leave” until he retired on medical grounds in 2020. He also had an extensive private practice.

The consultant remained an elusive figure and has never spoken publicly. A separate major hearing into his clinical work by the UK medical regulator – the Lockhart inquiry only had the scope to probe systems that allowed the failings to happen – couldn’t proceed after he voluntarily removed himself from the medical register.

The move left patients outraged and Danielle finally went public, becoming part of a high-profile neurology patient campaign group.

She has mounted a legal challenge and admits to becoming “obsessive around getting accountability”.

“The quest for answers has become the main focus of my life. It was as if he had a superhero status as a doctor that allowed him to go unregulated.

“He destroyed my life. And he’ll destroy my life going forward because I will never trust another doctor again.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times