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Priest sues NHS trust for negligence after Ockenden report

08 April 2022

Alamy

The Revd Charlotte Cheshire with her son, Adam, at their home in Newport, Shropshire, last week

The Revd Charlotte Cheshire with her son, Adam, at their home in Newport, Shropshire, last week

WHEN the Revd Charlotte Cheshire’s newborn son, Adam, fell ill with a Group B streptococcus infection, she blamed herself. The infection can be passed from mother to baby during birth, but, if spotted, can be treated quickly. In Adam’s case, Mrs Cheshire’s concerns about her son were dismissed for crucial hours until he was so ill that he had to be rushed into intensive care and placed in an induced coma.

He survived, and the staff at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust referred to him as the “miracle baby” when he was sent home after 23 days, with no medication. This added to Mrs Cheshire’s sense that hospital staff had saved Adam’s life, and she and her husband, Chris, felt nothing but gratitude at first to the staff who had cared for him.

Over the next few years, the severe health problems that he had been left with became apparent. He has vision and hearing impairment, is diagnosed autistic, and has learning difficulties.

Eleven years later, and with last week’s publication of the Ockenden report on the catastrophic failures at the Trust which led to the death or serious disability of 300 babies, and at least 12 mothers, it is only now that Mrs Cheshire and other families have realised the extent of the scandal that cost so many lives.

Mrs Cheshire said: “When we were discharged — me after 18 days, and Adam after 23 — staff referred to him as the miracle baby, and it really reinforced the idea they had saved his life.

“I didn’t have a sense, at first, the hospital had done anything wrong — if I held anyone responsible, it was actually me. I blamed myself, because Group B strep. lives in the woman’s body. I was so grateful to the hospital for saving my son’s life. My late husband even did a sponsored walk to raise money for the NICU [neonatal intensive-care unit], raising over £4000.

“I was in survival mode for three years. I couldn’t ask the question ‘Why did he get sick in the first place?’ In 2014, three years later, it was a friend who asked if I had thought about contacting a solicitor. I was quite angry and offended at first. But later, I approached the strep B charity to find a solicitor.

“I felt guilty that I was being ungrateful, after years of feeling grateful. I started looking back and asking questions about those crucial hours. I even questioned whether vicars were allowed to sue their local hospital.”

She is now suing the trust for medical negligence, but the case will not go to court until next January. The trust is still denying any liability.

The Ockenden report, commissioned by the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, is strongly critical. Led by a former midwife, Donna Ockenden, the independent inquiry looked into more than 1000 incidents over two decades. It found that the trust presided over failures that resulted not only in harm to mothers, but in babies’ dying and suffering fractured skulls, injuries, and infections. Among its key findings is that there was too much focus on so called “natural births”, and a culture in which parents were not listened to, and the trust failed to learn from its previous mistakes.

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said at the report’s publication last week that the failures had led to “unimaginable trauma for so many people”.

Mrs Cheshire began her ordination training when Adam was just six months old. Her training was an “emotional rollercoaster”, as Adam’s different diagnoses began to come through. But further sorrow came to the family.

Three years ago, after she had moved from Shropshire to the diocese of Leeds to take up an incumbency, her husband fell ill with cancer. He died ten months later.

The Bishops in the diocese have supported her, but much support has come from other clergy mothers with neurodivergent or disabled children. Support has not been universal in the Church, however.

“In my early years in my training, various people would query whether I should be ordained, as a mother of a disabled child, or whether I could offer the time and care that a church needed.

“I had amazing support from Leeds diocese when I moved up there as a new incumbent, and a huge amount of compassion when my husband became terminally ill. I’ve had support from other clergy mothers with children with disabilities or neurodivergence. There is something unique about balancing motherhood and ministry.”

After her husband’s death, she moved back to Shropshire; she will soon be taking up a new post as a secondary-school chaplain in Telford.

She will stay in contact with other families who suffered, and share “anger and hurt and regret”, she said.

“I also have anger, but a strong element of being a Christian is having hope in the future. It doesn’t take away the pain of the present, and, at times on the journey, I’ve been clinging on to faith by my fingernails. [There were] times when Chris was sick, or Adam in hospital, when I couldn’t pray — but my Bishop said to me then, the Church will pray for you and on your behalf.

“Adam has also kept me praying. When Chris was sick and on the verge of death, I couldn’t pray, but then the five years of routine of saying the Lord’s Prayer at Adam’s bedtime meant he would get very upset if I wouldn’t say it; so I did, and the words eventually became real again.”

The report is not the end of the story, for her or the other mothers now caring for disabled children, or only beginning to mourn the loss of their babies, now a conclusion of sorts has been reached with the publication of the report. Many are also investigating legal action, and others will continue to campaign for change.

“Ockendon isn’t the end: it’s a beginning, because the families are now looking for actual change,” Mrs Cheshire said.

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