‘My baby was brain damaged due to medical negligence – maternity services aren’t fit for purpose’

By Staff 12 Min Read

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No mother should have to watch their child suffer, but one woman who knows only too well the devastating consequences of medical negligence is Sheila Brill, whose daughter was robbed of the chance of a normal life the day she was born

Standing by her daughter’s grave, Sheila felt her heart break as she realised she would never witness her bright, beautiful daughter walk down the aisle, have children of her own or tell her family that she loved them.

Her daughter Josephine spent her entire life in a wheelchair, unable to feed herself, talk or see properly after medical staff made mistakes during her birth – 30 years down the line and mum Sheila fears things aren’t getting any better.

“We need to make maternity services safe – safe for mothers, safe for babies and safe for staff,” Sheila tells me as we look through family photo albums at her home in Bristol. “Thirty years on from Josephine’s birth, mistakes are still being made and to this day maternity units are under-resourced, underfunded and unsafe.”

Sheila and her husband Peter are among thousands of families who have sued health trusts for medical negligence in the UK. Avoidable medical mistakes led to their daughter Josephine being brain-damaged after being starved of oxygen. Sheila’s heart trace wasn’t correctly interpreted during labour resulting in Josephine being born quadriplegic with profound learning difficulties, needing round-the-clock care.

Sheila, who is originally from Glasgow, says she worries that ‘stories like Josephine’s will continue to be told’ if things don’t improve. Two-thirds (67 percent) of maternity units in the UK were deemed not safe enough in 2023, up from 55 percent in 2022, according to the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The total paid out for clinical negligence relating to maternity care last year was £2.6billion – a shocking statistic when you consider the overall maternity budget for NHS England is only £3bn.

One of the reasons why maternity services in the UK are struggling to meet safety standards is because of a shortage of around 2,500 midwives, says the Royal College of Midwives. Sheila worries that unless things change, more babies will suffer the same fate as her precious Josephine. “Staffing levels need to be safe, people should be able to intervene when they think things aren’t right and management must take responsibility for what’s going on,” she insists. “Without systemic review and reform, stories like Josephine’s will, sadly, continue to be told.”

Sheila’s concerns are not unfounded, last November a Care Quality Commission report revealed around half of maternity units inspected in 2023 were failing. Out of 89 NHS maternity units inspected, 32 “required improvement”, while 14 were deemed “inadequate”, meaning 52 percent of recently inspected maternity units weren’t up to the required standards.

The CQC began a new maternity inspection programme in August 2022 to help maternity services improve following the Ockenden review into the Shropshire maternity scandal – when 300 babies died or were brain damaged due to inadequate care. The report found staff are overworked, exhausted and stressed and that the cost of living pressures are adding further challenges to the recruitment and retention of staff.

Showing me photos of Josephine as a baby, she talks about her lovingly yet she’s candid about how tough it was looking after a severely disabled child. She’s written a book called Can I speak to Josephine Please – which tells her heart-wrenching story – a story which she hopes will pave the way to make childbirth safer for others.

“Medical incompetence totally destroyed Josephine’s life,” Sheila sighs. “It’s a very honest book about how difficult it is parenting a disabled child. It’s going to be hard for some people to read but I feel passionate that things have got to change.”

More than 5,000 babies are stillborn – or die – within the first four weeks of life in the UK each year, according to the Saving Babies’ Lives 2023 progress report published by NHS England. And while progress has been made to reduce this number since 2010, where the figure was nearer to 6,500, the report states that in 2021/22 nearly a fifth of stillbirths could have been avoided if better care had been provided. Little is said about the babies who are born disabled due to medical mistakes.

“Josephine was a survivor of birth trauma,” Sheila continues. “Very little is said about those who survive that initial trauma, nor the impact it has on their families, carers and healthcare professionals. But it’s important to talk about the survivors who have so many health and social needs throughout their lives as a result of medical mistakes”.

Despite the struggles of looking after a profoundly disabled child, Sheila recalls happy memories of her time with Josephine especially when she, her husband Peter and their son Asher were with her at home relaxing together as a family. Josephine loved bath time, her sensory garden and a bit of banter.

“She never spoke or laughed but she made a roaring sound sometimes – that was her way of getting her two pennies worth in,” Sheila laughs. “My happiest memories are when we were all together as a family and there would be banter and laughter. We would fight over who would sit next to her and she would be beaming with happiness. But the sad truth is that we could only ever relax when she was happy and safe.”

Josephine’s traumatic birth and profound disabilities left Sheila suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for 20 years before seeking therapy. Since completing Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, developed to help ex-soldiers overcome trauma, Sheila has been able to process her anger.

“My throat used to tighten, my heart raced and I’d be left exhausted by my rages,” Sheila remembers. “It wasn’t until a psychiatrist friend witnessed one of my rages that I went to see someone. I can talk about what happened now because I’ve had therapy, years ago it would have been impossible to sit here and chat so openly with you.”

The Department for Health and Social Care told the Mirror it is sorry for what happened to Sheila and Josephine but says considerable progress has been made to improve maternity outcomes since then. It quotes the fact that the stillbirth rate declined by 23 percent between 2010 and 2022 and the neonatal death rate reduced by 30% between 2010 and 2021.

A number of inspections have been completed since the CQC last published its state of care report in 2023 with a full report on these maternity service inspections due to be published later this year. Meanwhile, £6.8 million has been injected into tackling disparities in maternity care to ensure all mothers-to-be feel safe during and after giving birth.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The care Sheila and her daughter received was unacceptable. Since then, maternity care has improved considerably, with the stillbirth rate declining by 23% between 2010 and 2022 and the neonatal death rate declining by 30 percent between 2010 and 2021.

“But we are determined to improve maternity services for women before, during and after pregnancy which is why it is prioritised in our Women’s Health Strategy 2024 and why we continue to support NHS England’s Three-Year Plan for Maternity and Neonatal Services and pledged to double the number of nurse and midwifery training by 2031 through the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan.”

Sheila wakes up every day knowing that Josephine’s disability and premature death could have been prevented if maternity services were safer. “There was a whole series of things that went wrong, but there was incompetence,” she claims. “And that incompetence has destroyed a life, there’s no question. I’m not angry with the profession itself but I am angry that, thirty years on, mistakes are still being made. I want Josephine’s legacy to be a catalyst for change.”

Can I Speak To Josephine is published by Resilient Books and is available now.

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