Mother of four died in routine operation after artery in neck snapped
A mother-of-four who was undergoing what was considered routine elective surgery died after her carotid artery snapped during the operation.
Kathleen O'Neill (51) from Ryehill, Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway, died on November 27, 2012, after the unexpected incident at University Hospital Galway (UHG).
Mrs O'Neill, suffered from hyperparathyroidism which was leaving her feeling tired with aches and headaches. She was undergoing surgery to locate the gland causing the problem.
However, two-and-a-half hours into the surgery the patient's carotid artery, which had been moved to one side and retracted during the procedure, snapped.
Despite attempts to stem the bleeding, Mrs O'Neill died on the operating table. The death resulted in an internal investigation within the hospital.
However, a pathological examination of the section of artery discovered it had accelerated elastic degeneration.
Mrs O'Neill's husband Matthew told an inquest yesterday that he believed his wife was undergoing routine surgery. He said his family had been left "ruined" by the death of a wife and mother whom they had loved dearly.
He told how his wife had never missed a day of work in the accounts department of Eircom. She was generally healthy but her condition was leaving her feeling tired.
"She was a healthy person as far as I was concerned and she came out in a box, out in a coffin," he said.
Professor Michael Kerin, head of surgery at UHG – who carried out the operation – said it was the only time in his 29-year career that this had happened. He added that he had never heard of any other such case in the country.
"I've undertaken around 1,800 thyroid and parathyroid operations and I have never seen anything like this," he said.
Mrs O'Neill had undergone two earlier operations under Prof Kerin to remove the glands at the Galway Clinic. He had explained the additional risks of re-doing the same surgery but could never have anticipated any issue with the carotid artery, the inquest was told.
"In a million years if I thought I was going to be putting her life at risk we wouldn't have done another operation for her," he said.
He explained how he had retracted the artery to move it out of the way of the investigation site while he searched for the fourth parathyroid gland which was the size of a grain of rice. He applied the same amount of tension that he would use in all such operations.
However, two-and-a-half hours into the procedure, the artery snapped causing one end to retreat below the sternum. Three consultant anaesthetists, a cardiac and vascular surgeon all rushed to the theatre within minutes, but despite their resuscitation attempts Mrs O'Neill died.
A post-mortem investigation found that the artery had specific degeneration at that localised point which was not present elsewhere.
"I couldn't understand how this had happened at the time. I spent hours wondering how this had happened. The fact that the pathologist was able to find some weakness in the artery was some solace to me," added Prof Kerin.
Coroner Dr Ciaran MacLoughlin recorded death as a result of hypoglycemic shock due to the rupture of the carotid artery intra operationally due to degeneration. He sympathised with the family adding that the death had been a "catastrophe" for them and for Prof Kerin.