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Social Worker Paralysed Forever After Doctors Failed To Monitor Him Correctly Following Routine Op

Medical Law Expert Says Lessons Must Be Learnt To Protect Patients


By Helen MacGregor

A social worker who cared for people with spinal injuries has spoken of his horror at suffering the same fate, leaving him permanently paralysed from the waist down and now relying on round-the-clock care himself, because doctors failed to monitor him correctly after a routine hip operation.

Devastated Stephen Onley, 52, from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, says he asked doctors not to use an epidural to control pain during hip surgery at Birmingham’s Royal Orthopaedic Hospital because he was aware of the risk of spinal injury linked to this type of anaesthetic through his work with disabled people.

However, as part of his treatment in December 2010, Stephen was given an epidural and suffered complications resulting in a lack of blood to the spine, which caused irreparable damage because he was not being properly monitored.

Almost two years on, Stephen is completely reliant upon a wheelchair, has had to give up his job and his devoted wife Caroline has to provide the 24-hour care he now needs.

The couple instructed medical law experts at Irwin Mitchell to help Stephen get access to the support and rehabilitation he desperately needs and are speaking out after the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust admitted full responsibility for both the irreversible spinal damage which occurred as a result of failing to correctly monitor him, as well as a perforated bowel which he suffered due to further inadequate care after becoming paralysed.

This admission paves the way for a future settlement which will provide the lifetime of care and equipment Stephen needs.

The couple are now joining calls from Irwin Mitchell for urgent improvements in the monitoring of patients after surgery to prevent further avoidable injuries in future.

Speaking for the first time about the devastating errors which have cost him his independence, Stephen said: “I had spent more than 35 years caring for people with spinal injuries and so I was only too aware that epidurals carry a small, but nevertheless serious, risk of paralysis. I had made up my mind not to have an epidural under any circumstances but was told that it was recommended.

“As a result of the mistakes the hospital made through not monitoring my blood pressure, I will never walk again. My lack of mobility has meant I have now developed painful pressure sores and for the past year I have been virtually bedridden. I am now completely reliant upon my wife who has to care for me round the clock. 

“Caroline has been fantastic and I don’t know how I would have coped without her, but the fact remains that both our lives have been completely devastated as a result of this avoidable error.”

Problems first began when, on 6 December 2010, Stephen underwent routine resurfacing surgery on his right hip. Whilst under general anaesthetic, doctors inserted a spinal epidural to help control post-operative pain.

Even though medics would have been well aware that a spinal epidural can cause a patient’s blood pressure to drop post-operatively, in the hours that followed routine blood pressure checks were missed. By the following day Stephen’s blood pressure had fallen dangerously low, resulting in a lack of blood to his spinal cord, which caused irreparable damage.

It was then not until the early hours of 8 December that night-staff suspected there might be a problem as Stephen appeared to have no feeling or movement from the waist down and was having problems passing urine. An MRI scan later that day confirmed that Stephen would never be able to walk again. Complications also led to him suffering a perforated bowel and he was later transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for emergency surgery.

Stephen spent more than two months in hospital and a further six months in a specialist spinal injuries unit, before finally being allowed home in August 2011.

Tim Deeming, a medical law expert at Irwin Mitchell’s Birmingham office, who is representing him, said: “Stephen and Caroline have been devastated by what has happened. Apart from suffering hip pain, Stephen was a fit and active individual and believed that within a few weeks he would be recovered and back at work.

“To be told the news that you will spend the rest of your life reliant upon a wheelchair is unimaginable and to discover that this life long injury is as a result of a mistake which was entirely avoidable, has been incredibly hard for them both to come to terms with.

“Birmingham’s Royal Orthopaedic Hospital has a reputation for clinical excellence which is why it is extremely important, both to protect future patient welfare and to provide public reassurance, that the hospital learns important lessons from what happened to Stephen.

“Sadly this is not the first time that I have dealt with catastrophic injuries resulting from epidurals. Whilst they remain largely a safe form of anaesthetic, it is recognised by the medical profession that patients need to be closely monitored to ensure any problems are identified before it is too late.

“Although no amount of money will ever turn back the clock for Stephen, we will now work with the Trust to provide Stephen with the financial support he requires to pay for the special equipment, care and rehabilitation needed to help rebuild his life.”

Watch our video with Stephen below:

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise relating to Medical Negligence Claims and Pressure Sore Claims.