Tuesday 19 March 2019

'No words can describe the trauma' - Irishman (22) collapsed and died one week after routine operation

Joan and Walter Comerford were left devastated by the death of their 22 year-old son from a post-op blood clot. Now a new HSE campaign is urging patients to be alert for the warning signs

Joan and Walter Comerford lost their son Niall in 2012. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Joan and Walter Comerford lost their son Niall in 2012. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Niall Comerford, who died in October 2012.

Arlene Harris

Niall Comerford had always been fit and healthy. According to his mum Joan, the second of her four children was a happy boy before becoming a young man with 'lofty ambitions' who was enjoying life as a legal student at Waterford Institute of Technology when in 2010, he fell on his left knee.

After receiving medical treatment, it was deemed that the Kilkenny man, who was 20 at the time, was recovered enough to get on with his life.

However, he experienced recurrent bouts of pain and after two years, he was referred for surgery on his knee. It was not considered a complex operation and after a few days of recuperation, he returned to college.

The following day, he collapsed and died. The 22-year-old suffered a post-operative blood clot which tragically claimed his life.

Niall Comerford, who died in October 2012.
Niall Comerford, who died in October 2012.

Niall's distraught family say they will never get over their loss as he was a young man in the prime of his life with nothing to indicate that he was at risk of developing a clot.

"When Niall came down on his knee while working in his part-time job, he underwent extensive physiotherapy for a number of months and was then referred to hospital, where an arthroscopy was performed," recalls his mum, Joan.

"He eventually made a reasonable recovery but continued to suffer periodically with pain and discomfort, which resulted in him being referred for a day-case procedure to remove the ossicle tibial.

"On discharge he was given a prescription for paracetamol and a tubic bandage to replace the crepe bandage after 72 hours - and was instructed to return after 10 days to have stitches removed.

"He followed the instructions but after putting on the tubic bandage he felt pins and needles in his calf followed by some discolouration, which soon faded.

The Comerfords believe that had Niall been given an aftercare information sheet, he might have been made aware of the possibility of a blood clot and he would have contacted the hospital, where he could have received appropriate treatment.

Instead, he was totally unaware of any danger and on September 30, 2012 - six days after his operation - his mother drove him back to college and said she would see him the following week.

It was the last time she saw him alive.

"On Monday, October 1, our lives changed forever when I received a call saying Niall had collapsed and was being taken by ambulance to hospital," says Joan. "We immediately drove down there but it was too late, and I cannot describe the horror that unfolded when we were informed of his death.

"But the consultant explained that Niall developing a DVT [deep vein thrombosis] was such an extraordinary rare occurrence in such a fit and healthy young man that the need for the awareness was not highlighted to him."

DVT can affect both the young and old and in recent weeks the HSE has launched a new awareness campaign to highlight the fact that 11,000 people are affected by blood clots every year in Ireland -and they are the biggest cause of preventable deaths. The campaign includes the distribution of patient alert cards, a national report and 'toolkit' to assist hospitals in preventing blood clots.

Ciara Kirke, HSE clinical lead for medication safety, says awareness of the dangers will help to save lives. "At least 60pc of blood clots happen during or after a hospital stay," she says. "Up to 70pc of these may be preventable. The HSE has been making great strides - teams in 27 hospitals have improved blood clot prevention, resulting in 34,000 more patients getting the correct prevention per year.

"Over 100 healthcare professionals attended training and participated in improvement projects locally and the HSE has published a national report highlighting the huge amount of learning from this project, along with a toolkit and patient alert cards which are being distributed to hospitals to build on this success."

While this is all positive news, it is cold comfort to Joan and Walter and their other children - Damian, Shane and Linda.

"We find it very hard to cope with and accept the circumstances of Niall's death," admits Joan. "His main ambition was to finish college and pursue a career in law, which we have no doubt he would have excelled at. Sadly, all of this was taken away from him by his untimely death and this has left a huge void in our lives and also for his wide circle of friends. No words can describe the traumatic effect of losing Niall - and this will continue for many years to come."

On November 30, 2012, an inquest was held into Niall Comerford's sudden death and the coroner recorded "acute cardiac arrest, pulmonary embolism resulting from a DVT in calf of his left leg following recent history of surgery".

Niall's grieving mother is sharing her story because she believes it is vital for people to be made aware of the fact that blood clots can affect patients of any age.

"We cannot change the past - we have lost our son and wish to God we hadn't - but the future can be changed," she says. "Consultation, information and the creation of awareness are the key factors in the prevention of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism, which is the cause of so many unnecessary deaths.

"And if Niall did not fit the profile of being a candidate for a blood clot, then it is time that we stopped profiling patients and looked at everyone as a potential candidate for developing a DVT.

"The death of our son should be the example and reason for doing this. For some he might be just a statistic, but to us he was and always will be our son Niall."

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