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‘My child was drowning’: life and death on an English maternity ward


Norah Bassett was hours old when she died in 2019, after multiple failings in her care. What can be learned from her heartbreaking loss?

The maternity unit at the Royal Hampshire county hospital in Winchester was busy the evening when Charlotte Bassett gave birth. When the night shift came on duty, a midwife introduced.

“She was very brusque,” Charlotte, 37, a data manager, remembers. “She said, ‘We’ve got too many people here. I’ve got this and this to do.’” Charlotte tried to breastfeed Norah, but she wasn’t latching. The midwife told Charlotte to cup feed her with formula. She didn’t stay to watch. Charlotte poured milk from a cup into Norah’s rosebud mouth. Blood came out. It was staining the muslin. The midwife didn’t seem concerned.

“I was drowning my child, who was drowning in her own blood. And there was no one there to say: this isn’t normal,” Charlotte says.

The Health Services Safety Investigations Body (now HSSIB but at the time known as HSIB), which investigates patient safety in English hospitals, produced a report into Norah’s care in 2020. One sentence leaped out to Charlotte and her husband James. “An upper airway event (such as occlusion of the baby’s airway during skin-to-skin) may have contributed to the baby’s collapse.” In other words, it was possible that Charlotte might have smothered her daughter.

“So Charlotte spent four years in agony,” says James, “thinking it was her.”

Dr Martyn Pitman remembers the night Norah died, because it was unusual. A crash call, for a baby born to a low-risk mother. It played on his mind, because eight days earlier, on 4 April 2019, Pitman, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, had presented proposals for enhanced foetal monitoring to a meeting of the maternity unit’s doctors and senior midwives. Pitman, 57, who is an expert in foetal monitoring, felt the proposals would prevent more babies suffering brain injuries at birth. “We’re not that good at detecting the high-risk baby, in the low-risk mum,” he says.

Another doctor would later characterise the meeting as “hideous … hands down the worst meeting I’ve ever been to. Martyn … was being set upon.” A midwife felt the animosity in the room was “personal towards Martyn”, and was “appalled” by the “unprofessionalism that I saw from my midwifery colleagues”.

James and Charlotte join an unhappy club: a community of parents whose children died young, after receiving poor care, and were told their deaths were unavoidable, or felt blamed for them.

“I’ve spoken to so many families,” says Donna Ockenden, who authored a 2022 report into Shrewsbury’s maternity services, “who have been blamed for the eventual poor outcome in their cases. This has included being blamed for their babies’ death.” She has also met the families of women blamed for their own deaths. “This never fails to shock me,” she says.

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Source: The Guardian, 26 March 2024


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