Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Spotlight investigates baby deaths

By Bobby Friedman
BBC NI Spotlight

In the summer of 2006 four babies died at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry.

It was an unusual cluster of unrelated deaths, each an individual tragedy for the parents and families.

At the time the hospital's maternity unit had a lower rate of newborn fatality than both the Northern Ireland and UK averages.

Martin and Alison O'Brien
Martin and Alison O'Brien were looking forward to the birth of their third child

However, after a fourth death in just two months a paediatrician raised his concerns and an investigation was launched.

Spotlight has spoken to the families of two of the babies who died.

In both cases, the pregnancy was healthy and neither mother was considered a high risk.

Alison and Martin O'Brien from Newtownstewart already had two children, Chloe and Cahal, and were looking forward to a third.

Martin said that he was overjoyed to find out that Alison was pregnant.

"I was just over the moon when we heard the news, so it was just Christmas all over again especially for the two, Cahal and Chloe," Martin explained.

"They were just looking forward to having a wee baby sister or brother in the house again."

Alison said she had no idea of the trouble that lay ahead.

"Everything was going grand, everything was going perfect but things just went horribly wrong," she said.

Their pain is shared by Shirley McClean who, with her partner Robin Parke, was expecting her first child.

'Changed forever'

She said that her life remains deeply affected by the death of her son Kyle, who lived for just a few weeks.

"For a whole nine months, carrying that child and feeling them move and kick and even hiccup…and then to have nothing. It changes your life completely," she said.

Shirley McClean visit her sons grave
Shirley McClean's son Kyle lived for just a few weeks.

"You never, ever get over it. Your whole life has changed forever."

Shirley keeps a photo album of Kyle's brief life, spent mainly in intensive care.

He lay there for three weeks opposite the O'Brien's son Ronan, who was also desperately ill, and the two newborns died within 24 hours of each other, just a few weeks after they were born.

Recent inquests have heard that in both cases, decisions were made that decreased both Kyle and Ronan's chances of survival.

Both babies were already ill, but if action had been taken sooner there is a chance that they both could have lived.

Spotlight has spoken to experts in obstetrics who have reviewed the papers in both cases.

Professor Jimmy Walker, who advises the National Patients Safety Association, said that action should have been taken to help Kyle Parke.

"It was clear that Kyle was not happy and something needed to be done to try and assess what was going on," he told us at a conference on safety in maternity wards.

"If it wasn't possible to assess how well baby Kyle was, then delivery by caesarean section would have been the only option. It was quite clear that some intervention should have occurred."

The Western Health Trust, which controls Altnagelvin Hospital, said that changes have been made since the deaths, including greater consultant time in the labour ward and more training for staff.

Spotlight is on BBC 1 at 2240 GMT on Tuesday.

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