A woman “wide awake” during heart surgery after being given the wrong medication has agreed to £32,000 in damages.
Patricia Otty, 77, was haunted by her heart valve replacement op, suffering nightmares in which she was “choking and experiencing excruciating pain”.
And three months after being discharged, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said: “I had a constant sense of dread and anxiety and I became terrified of everything – especially medical procedures. I was vomiting with fear ahead of one of my heart scans after the op.”
Pat had heart issues, including aortic stenosis and atrial fibrillation, when she was admitted for the op at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, in April 2017.
She was given 125mg of general anaesthetic thiopentone – half the usual dose for a woman of her age and size.
Then she was mistakenly injected with potassium chloride instead of the pain-killer fentanyl.
The potassium chloride – used in Death Row lethal injections – stopped Pat’s heart. Surgeons resuscitated her but when they cut through her breastbone, the anaesthetic would have worn off and she would have been “wide awake” and without painkillers, according to legal documents.
She had also been given muscle relaxant rocuronium, so she would have been “paralysed and unable to move or otherwise indicate she was awake”.
The blunder was realised when hospital staff saw two ampules of potassium chloride were missing and no fentanyl had been used. Pat, of Paignton, Devon, was shocked when told but “glad to be alive”.
She said: “Even once they realised the error, I was never told I could have been conscious throughout the op.”
Pat was unable to explicitly remember the surgery due to the sedative effect of a sleeping pill given during the op, but “implicitly” recalls it, according to her claim.
She said: “Within days I began having nightmares. I lost my confidence and cried all the time. I accept people take on risk when they have an operation. Never would I have dreamt there would be negligence like this.”
In 2018, University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust admitted breaching its duty of care over the wrongful administration of the medicine, making 11 learning recommendations.
Pat was offered £7,000 in damages but declined and instructed Wollens Solicitors on a no-win no-fee basis. But she said: “I feel I was dismissed by the barrister who advised Wollens. He made me feel I was wrong about my symptoms or overreacting – even as my personality changed.”
Clinical negligence barrister David Thomas, who was sought by Wollens, left the case after a formal complaint by Pat that he made errors in his written advice in September 2019 was upheld.
In September 2020, Queens Square Chambers issued an apology to Pat after finding “failings in the expected level of service standards”. Mr Thomas admitted he had not taken damages to her chest wall into account.
He also acknowledged his initial opinion that patients who have suffered anaesthetic awareness are usually aware of it once they come round was “incorrect” and apologised.
And he acknowledged that “however unintentional, his manner may well have served to offend Mrs Otty or have caused her discomfort”.
Pat agreed to a £32,000 out-of-court settlement after the Trust accepted she sustained “moderate” injuries. But son Andrew claims her injuries meet the criteria for “severe”. He has lodged a formal complaint against Wollens, claiming the major stressor of Pat’s PTSD – being conscious in surgery – was largely ignored for three years, then poorly supported in her claim.
Andrew, 39, says Pat has so far received only £6,000 in damages – which has been ring-fenced for further counselling and treatment – while Wollens calculates its cut of the total.
The Trust said: “We’re truly sorry, nobody should go through an experience like this. That’s why we accepted liability and made the payment.”
Wollens partner Simon Bean said the firm cannot comment on specific cases but rejects the allegations.
He said: “We are an award-winning firm which places the highest importance on its responsibilities to clients and adherence to the Solicitors’ Professional Code of Conduct.”