Saturday 25 January 2020

€450,000 for a life destroyed by 'unnecessary' childbirth surgery

Tim Healy and Eilish O'Regan

A WOMAN whose life was "destroyed" by an unnecessary and outdated childbirth operation was yesterday awarded €450,000 in compensation.

Olivia Kearney (60) endured a "wholly unnecessary" surgical procedure after she had her first baby nearly 43 years ago.

The operation left her with a lifetime of pain and serious psychological damage.

Yesterday, Ms Kearney became the first woman in Ireland to be awarded High Court compensation for the symphysiotomy procedure.

Symphysiotomy involved making the pelvis larger by cutting through cartilage binding the pubic bones together to accommodate the baby's head.

Speaking afterwards, Ms Kearney, of Castlebellingham, Co Louth, said: "I am delighted with the judgment and glad the case is now over and want to thank my family."

Insurers for Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, where the procedure was carried out, have two weeks to appeal the case.

Ms Kearney is one of around 150 surviving women ranging in age from 47 to 89 years of age who had a symphysiotomy.

The procedure is sometimes carried out when a woman is delivering a breech baby and the head becomes blocked in the pelvis.

However, it was often needlessly performed in Catholic-run maternity units in Ireland from the 1940s to the early 1980s as an alternative to caesarean section.

It was believed women who faced the prospect of repeated caesareans for future births might be tempted to use contraception.

Ms Kearney had the procedure performed in October 1969 by the late gynaecologist Dr Gerard Connolly.

She sued former hospital owners, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who denied her claims. The hospital argued that the procedure was justified in the circumstances of the time.

Her son was delivered by caesarean section but the symphysiotomy was carried out afterwards.

It left Ms Kearney in such a condition that she was unable to get out of bed to see the baby until six days later when her husband took her in a wheelchair to see the child.

Mr Justice Ryan said the Catholic ethos and mode of thinking which prevailed about this procedure in 1969 is "mercifully a matter of history".

He said there was no need for the symphysiotomy because subsequent measurements indicated Ms Kearney's pelvis was normal and there was therefore no need to enlarge the pelvis.

In the first three months after her son was born, when she was just 18, she spent most of her time in bed. The pain in her pelvis spread all over her body and it was a year before she was fully mobile and able to return to work.


She did not bond with her baby and over the years sought many forms of treatment for back pain and lower abdominal pain and was also depressed, the court heard.

Mr Justice Ryan said Dr Connolly had altered the course of Ms Kearney's life irrevocably by carrying out "this unnecessary operation".

"Her reasonable expectation of enjoying a normal sexual and emotional relationship was destroyed," he said.

Her desire to have more children was similarly frustrated, he said. Ms Kearney's self-esteem had been shattered and she blamed herself for the inadequacies and disappointments that resulted.

She only realised she'd had the operation nearly 33 years later when she heard a radio programme discussion.

"That revelation in 2002 that her life had been transformed by a deliberate act and not by natural causes brought its own extra quotient of misery," the judge said.

Her legal action was brought after 2002 but the hospital successfully asked the High Court to strike out her claim because of the prejudice against it by the delay in bringing proceedings.

Ms Kearney appealed that decision to the Supreme Court which ruled in her favour and the case came back before the High Court.

Yesterday, Mr Justice Ryan also said it was disturbing to consider how close "this victim of grave medical malpractice came to being sacrificed on the altar of fair procedures".

The judge said the hospital could appeal his decision if it first paid out €200,000 to Ms Kearney.

Commenting on the case Marie O'Connor, spokeswoman for Survivors of Symphysiotomy, said it was essential the statute of limitations was set aside for the mostly older surviving women who had the operation.

Ms Kearney's solicitor Shane Coyle said she was particularly grateful to her family for their support.

Irish Independent

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