Hepatitis C woman's family accuses Minister over claim


The family of a Cork woman infected with hepatitis C through contaminated blood has accused the Minister for Health, Mr Martin, of delaying "signing off" on an agreed compensation deal for her because she is at risk of imminent death.

Ms Sylvia O'Leary (32), a mother of two, from Ballincollig, Co Cork, has been waiting for Government approval for the compensation package, understood to be in the order of €1 million, whilst undergoing life-saving medical treatment at Cork University Hospital.

Her husband, Mr Des O'Leary, said Mr Martin and his officials were "playing a game of poker" with her life on the basis that "if something happens to her they can walk away" without paying.

A spokeswoman for the Minister rejected the accusations, saying: "There is no question of us reneging or unravelling the agreement. We anticipate it will be dealt with by close of business \."

The spokeswoman said the two parties only reached the agreement last Wednesday and "it was always going to take a number of days to work out the detail".

The family denies this, however, saying the agreement was reached on December 2nd last after protracted negotiations. Ms Melissa Gowan, the family's solicitor, said they had then been told the agreement would be "rubber-stamped" by the Ministers for Health and Finance within 24 or 48 hours. She said she had received similar assurances up to early yesterday, when she was told it would take another week or two before the agreement could be finalised.

Ms O'Leary has been placed on a life-support machine after suffering severe liver and kidney failure. Doctors are attempting to stabilise her so that she will be fit to travel to the UK for a liver transplant, the third she would have to undergo.

In an urgent letter to the Minister yesterday, Ms Gowan said: "We have been told that she [Ms O'Leary] may only have hours to live. The O'Learys believe that you are gambling on her not surviving so that you can attempt to resile again from the agreement reached between us."

Demanding a response from Mr Martin by close of business yesterday, Ms Gowan added: "May we take it that you have deliberately decided to allow Mrs O'Leary to die without giving her the comfort of knowing that her family will be provided for after her death."

Speaking to The Irish Times last night, Ms Gowan said the suggestion that the deal would be finalised today had only emerged after she had spoken to the media about the case.

She added: "I'll believe it when I see it. The bottom line is we do not have a settlement until it has been signed off by the Ministers."

Mr Martin's spokeswoman noted that the deal had to be cleared through the Department of Finance, adding that a "substantial amount" was involved.

The claim had to be processed outside of the scope of the hepatitis C compensation tribunal due to the fact that Ms O'Leary was only informed of her positive status for the virus in April 2001, after the closing date for claims to the statutory inquiry.

Ms O'Leary was infected with hepatitis C through contaminated blood received during a liver transplant in 1991 at King's College, London, to which she was sent due to the absence of such transplant facilities in the State at that time. She had to undergo a second such transplant at the hospital last March.

Mr O'Leary said the infection had put a huge financial strain on the family.

"We have been carrying this ourselves the whole time. We were waiting on home help, waiting on nursing help, waiting for a stair lift. Everything was promised but nothing ever came. I have to carry her up and down the stairs," he said. "We have just been looking for the same as everyone else who got infected."

Ms Gowan said it was unfortunate the family had been forced to go public in order to progress the case. She added the case was reminiscent of, if not "more serious" than, that of Ms Brigid McCole, the Donegal mother who died in October 1996, a day after a settlement was reached in her legal action over hepatitis C infection.