London - A two-day-old baby died after a surgeon carried out a risky operation to ‘prove a point’, an inquest heard.
Paul Mitchelhill was born with a condition that could have been treated with a ‘safer’ option as there was no imminent danger.
But Emmanuel Towuaghanste, 62, performed a needless high-risk procedure when the premature infant was only hours old.
An expert witness suggested the locum, who had been in the job for a month, was trying to ‘prove a point’ by carrying out the surgery.
The doctor didn’t even bother to consult the child’s parents. And as intensive care colleagues became increasingly worried about the baby’s worsening health, he ignored them.
By the time he did act it was too late and the child died of complications a day later. Yesterday devastated parents – Irene Mitchelhill, 33, a broker, and her 37-year-old husband Paul, a lawyer – described the horror of their son ‘arriving home in a coffin’. The couple, from Carlisle, Cumbria, said in a statement: ‘We came home without our son, having only held him for the first time as he was dying.
‘We faced the horror of losing our first baby boy and the trauma of him arriving home in a coffin.’ The surgeon – known as Mr Towu – was said to have shown ‘no remorse’ after the tragedy at Newcastle’s Great North Children’s Hospital in October 2013.
Police launched a manslaughter investigation on the basis he had been grossly negligent, but no criminal action was taken.
The inquest also heard there was a huge gap in his surgical record because he had not bothered to keep a logbook – a requirement of the Royal College of Surgeons.
The most recent record was in 2000 – but he said he lost it in a house move. Although Mr Towu said he had carried out or been involved in the same type of operation up to 26 times in his 32-year career, police found no evidence to support his claims.
Paul was born with a condition that causes the internal organs to grow in the umbilical cord and end up in a sack outside the body.
The Newcastle hearing was told Mr Towu carried out a risky one-stage ‘primary abdominal closure’ instead of a more conservative ‘staged’ response over a longer period. Children can go for years with the condition before surgery is required and Paul was stable at the time, it was said.
Three other paediatric consultants told the inquest they would have taken the ‘safe’ option of a staged response. Coroner Karen Dilks recorded a narrative conclusion after lawyers for the baby’s family invited her to find Mr Towu – who did not attend to hear the decision – had unlawfully killed the baby.
She said he failed to undertake a ‘thorough analysis’ of the risks, adding: ‘He undertook the operation in the first day of life when no emergency action was indicated and without appropriate discussions with Paul’s parents or giving proper weight to the concerns of the paediatric intensive care team in respect of Paul’s condition.’ A series of errors during the procedure directly contributed to the baby’s death, she added.
By the time a senior colleague became aware of Paul’s condition, the only option was to lay the infant in the arms of his mother to die.
Simon Huddart, a retired paediatric surgeon, told the hearing: ‘A locum surgeon of one month as a consultant and performing this surgery has a feeling of trying to prove a point. Seeing an operation is not the same as doing the operation, I watched my dad drive for 17 years – it doesn’t mean I could drive.’
Mr Towu, who began his medical training in the 1970s in Nigeria, told the hearing it was ‘almost impossible’ to get hold of his surgical records – and blamed the death on errors by his colleagues. He described the atmosphere towards him on the ward as ‘unfriendly’. Although he apologised to Paul’s parents for not taking swifter action, he highlighted a lack of ‘support’.
Surgeon Bruce Jaffray, who now runs the unit, described the incident as an ‘avoidable death’.
He said: ‘I hope if I was in that situation I would be devastated, show some contrition, some insight, some knowledge.
‘I hope I would have the integrity to admit my faults. I found none of that in Mr Towu.’
The coroner’s findings have been passed on to the General Medical Council.
A spokesman for the Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust said an investigation was carried out to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.