Grieving mother branded ‘vindictive cow’ and a culture of NHS arrogance

Published by The Daily Mail (6th May, 2016)

Surely it is impossible to imagine the twisted inhumanity of someone who would pick up the phone to a bereaved mother campaigning for a safer health service and unleash cruel abuse.

Yet precisely this has just happened to Sara Ryan, whose teenage son died a needless death under the supposed care of one of Britain’s biggest mental health trusts.

Dr Ryan found a message on her workplace voicemail from a woman identifying herself as an official with Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.

She began by saying she felt sorry for the loss. But then this cowardly creep continued: ‘I do think you are being very vindictive. I think you are a vindictive cow, on TV all the time, slating the NHS and Southern Health.’

No wonder Dr Ryan felt sick listening to the tape. She has suffered many low points since her son Connor drowned in a bath in July 2013 at a centre run by Southern Health, but this was among the worst. It was, she said, ‘part of a set of improbably inappropriate, nasty responses we’ve endured’.

Yet this is not just the story of one woman. For this astonishingly callous phone call is a symptom of something desperately alarming, a corrosive sickness that has infected the very heart of our health system.

It shows what happens when someone dares challenge the arrogance, the complacency and the cover-up culture that scars our sacred National Health Service.

Although abusing a grieving mother plumbs fresh depths of cruelty, we have seen such attitudes before: the whistleblowers silenced and driven out, the grieving relatives whose motives are impugned, the patients’ groups whose heartfelt concerns are ignored.

All too often, the instinctive response to tragic failures of care seems to be denial, regardless of how much additional pain this causes patients and families. Rarely is there a ready acceptance that mistakes have, or even can, be made.

This latest shocking case puts such attitudes into hideously sharp relief. Yet again, a flawed public body showed more concern for its tarnished reputation than a terrible truth: that failures and neglect contributed to the death of a young man entrusted into its care.

But Southern Health took on the wrong person with Dr Ryan. For this charismatic woman has used her articulacy and research skills as an academic — she is a senior researcher for Oxford’s Nuffield department of primary care health sciences — to highlight systemic failures in the treatment of people with learning difficulties.

C onnor, who had epilepsy and autism, was nicknamed Laughing Boy by his parents for his sense of fun, and the situations they sometimes found themselves in with his offbeat behaviour. He was, for example, charmingly obsessed with buses and the Eddie Stobart lorries that travel up and down our motorways. He was also close to his three brothers and sister.

But he died aged just 18 — almost certainly after a seizure while in the bath — at Slade House, a short-term assessment and treatment unit in Oxford, run by a trust caring for 45,000 people in five counties.

The Trust instantly went into defensive mode. The day after Connor’s death they circulated a briefing around staff revealing that they were cynically monitoring his mother’s online blog, and warning that some earlier issues she had raised (over their failure to notice a seizure) might cause them difficulties.

The Trust claimed Connor died of natural causes and that ‘all appropriate systems and processes were in place’. Yet six weeks later, Slade House failed an assessment by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) watchdog because of a range of serious concerns. Three months later, the unit was closed (although it later re-opened).

His mother channelled her grief into fighting to find out what really happened. At the inquest, finally held last year, it emerged that Connor had been left alone in the bath and, incredibly, the door was locked. Then it was revealed that another patient had died in the same bath seven years earlier.

Little wonder the jury found that serious failings and neglect contributed to Connor’s death. It has even emerged since that the Trust had been made aware of problems a year beforehand. Dr Ryan persuaded NHS England to investigate Southern Health.

It emerged that this dismal trust failed properly to probe the unexpected deaths of more than 1,000 people since 2011, especially older patients with mental health problems and those with learning difficulties.

She turned this into a national issue over the safety of such units for people with learning difficulties, and was joined by other families who also felt they had been let down.

Yet instead of being hailed, this brave woman had abuse heaped on her head. Not just that sick phone call: there has been foul-mouthed criticism on social media from the son of a non-executive director of the Trust, and she was called ‘toxic’ by one staff member in a report.

At least the Trust’s chairman quit last week after yet another CQC report slammed Southern Health for ‘continuing to put patients at risk’.

Yet the chief executive Katrina Percy shows no shame, clinging to her post, with its hefty six-figure salary and pension pot approaching half a million pounds. Laughably, she was given an award as NHS Chief Executive of the Year in 2012.

This sad saga stains the NHS, revealing serial failures towards vulnerable patients in its care. Such is the casual bigotry towards people with learning difficulties — such as Connor, or indeed my own daughter — that an estimated 1,200 die every year due to inadequate care.

Yet perhaps the most egregious aspect is that there are so many echoes of similar cases when the system has closed ranks in the past against those whose only wish was to save lives and spare others from grief.

As Dr Ryan told me: ‘It is shocking that what has happened to me must happen all the time. You raise concerns or are caught up in something awful, and they react by turning you into the problem.’

I saw the same with Julie Bailey, hounded from her job running a cafe and shunned by her local community after exposing the dreadful neglect that led to the death of her mother and many hundreds more in two Mid Staffordshire hospitals.

This amazing woman’s reward for revealing the biggest NHS failure this century, a disaster of epic proportions, was to receive death threats and abuse from hospital staff, and see her mother’s grave vandalised.

And I have heard the same from whistleblowers such as Gary Walker, a former hospital chief executive who was silenced, smeared and threatened after raising concerns over how pressure to meet targets was compromising patient safety.

A lthough he knew it was standard practice to cover-up incompetence with gagging orders, he was still shocked by the savage response when he spoke out. He was almost crushed for seeking better care — and claims he remains barred from jobs in the NHS.

I know from personal experience the abuse and criticism you can receive from NHS staff if you dare take on the medical fraternity and the shibboleths about our sacred health service in print, even though statistics show it performs badly in too many areas, from cancer care to infant mortality.

To a lesser extent, this high-handed attitude of some medical personnel — the assumption that it is their health service and they are beyond reproach — is writ large in the current junior doctors’ strike. Anyone daring to disagree with their stance, perhaps supporting the idea of safer weekend services, gets accused of simply being a heartless Tory stooge.

The harsh truth is that for too long the NHS cruised along on waves of public worship, hiding its flaws behind a wall of smug arrogance, its failures behind a grotesque culture of cover-up, and turning its fire on those who dared to challenge its behaviour.

This undermines the many thousands of NHS staff who are efficient and dedicated, it impacts on vital services, and it is obscenely contemptuous of patients, families and taxpayers who, after all, pay the NHS bills. As costs are constrained and pressures build on a beleaguered system, such attitudes can only have damaging consequences.

Southern Health should immediately issue a full apology to Dr Ryan — and then sack its chief executive, who has overseen such lethal incompetence.

And the entire NHS needs to stop being so defensive. Safety is driven by acceptance of failure and by openness — not by hounding grieving families.

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