Saturday 20 July 2019

Book review: Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation

The girl with the diamond smile

Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation - Kitty Holland
Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation - Kitty Holland
Savita at home in Bagalkot, aged 6, before going with her family to a cultural event at which she was to dance
High achiever: Savita, relaxed in the living room of the family home in Sri Nagar, Belgaum, circa 2008
The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was passed in the wake of the death of Savita Halappanavar
Stubborn courage: Praveen still seeks answers

Eililsh O'Regan

Non-fiction Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation Kitty Holland Transworld Ireland, €14.99, tpbk, 288 pages. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Death and misfortune touch our lives in the pages of national newspapers daily. Yet rarely has a husband's grief and search for the truth about why his wife died in an Irish hospital gripped the nation like the story of Savita Halappanavar for so long.

Praveen Halappanavar, the quiet-spoken husband with a will of steel, remains in the shadows in Irish Times journalist Kitty Holland's book on the Savita tragedy.

The author points out it was his decision not to contribute directly to the book. Yet it would have been fascinating to learn more about his childhood in India or the influences and culture that shaped his remarkable and stubborn courage.

However, she provides new revelations and insights into the vivacious personality of Savita, the girl with the "diamond smile" who loved to dance. (That was how she was known to her friends in Galway because of the small diamond she had in her teeth.)

The story broke in November last year that Savita, a 31-year-old Indian-born dentist, who was 17 weeks pregnant, died of septicaemia on October 28 in University Hospital Galway after being "denied a termination".

Praveen was quoted as saying she was admitted a week earlier and told she would miscarry. She had asked for an abortion but was refused because the foetus still had a heartbeat and was told this was a "Catholic country".

The seemingly needless death of a beautiful young woman relit the abortion debate with heightened outrage and made global headlines. The website proclaimed "Ireland murders pregnant Indian dentist".

Much of the initial reaction, in the absence of clear facts, centred on speculation that her doctors' "hands were tied" because of legal abortion restrictions and a lack of legislation clarifying the X Case.

Later investigations would reveal events surrounding her care at the hospital were much more complex than this.

Holland reveals that it was 20 of Praveen's shocked Indian friends in Galway, where he was working in Boston Scientific, who first contacted Galway Pro-Choice while he was burying Savita in India.

"We thought we need to bring this to public attention one way or the other," said Dr Chalikonda Prasad. Holland, a well known writer on social issues, was contacted with vague details. But she wanted to check it out and travelled to Galway where Praveen's friends put her on the phone to him. He set out the events as he witnessed them in the hospital before losing his beloved Savita.

Months later the author would journey to India as research for the book and visit the late Savita's comfortable family in the industrial city of Belgaum. An only daughter with two brothers, her life appeared charmed. She was "always funny, always smiling and always a little ruler", her mother commented.

She was first in her class, a high achiever and popular. Her family belonged to the Lingayat religion, which put much emphasis on tolerance.

In one poignant scene Savita's parents, who say they "cannot bear our future now", show the author into Savita's pink bedroom. "This is where she studied and practised her dancing," said her proud father.

Savita met Praveen on a dating website and after their marriage they settled in Galway suburbia, enjoying the vibrant city.

The narrative of the book, from the time she first spoke to Praveen to the unfolding events, is told through the eyes of the author. She is forthright in tackling accusations that she was pushing a pro-abortion agenda amid criticisms from pro-life groups.

But the way the book is structured leaves several important omissions. For instance, the author is very narrow in the newspaper commentators she speaks to, confining herself mostly to Irish Times columnists.

Yet, one of the striking features of the analysis and opinion in different newspapers, which marked this round of the abortion debate compared with earlier years, is how measured, reasoned, nuanced and mature much of it was. The hot-headed outpourings of the pro- and anti-lobby failed to dominate as they used too.

The book perhaps gives too much space to extreme bluster and indulges the ranting brigade. There is no mention of the biggest journalistic breakthrough, after the story initially broke, which was made by a young reporter, Fiona Hynes in The Herald.

It was through old-fashioned digging that Hynes obtained a confidential draft copy of the investigation into Savita's death in February that laid bare for the first time how staff at the hospital failed to detect she had sepsis and failed to act on her deteriorating condition. This was two months before an inquest into her death; the report itself was not made public until June.

The February exposé meant Savita's care had even wider significance. It was now not just about getting legislation through to give clarity to doctors on when pregnancies can be terminated but also about poor practice in maternity units and an alarming lack of staff training on how to pick up signs of an infection that could be life-threatening.

The Savita case hastened the momentum for the new legislation clarifying when doctors can terminate a pregnancy. And her other great legacy will be preventing more pointless deaths from sepsis.

The book details the unanswered questions about her care. And for Praveen the battle is not over yet.

Eilish O'Regan is Health Correspondent of the Irish Independent.

Irish Independent

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