One awful story which broke just before Christmas, but somehow failed to gain the national outcry it deserved, was the tragic death of Aoife Johnston. The “beautiful and kind” teenager from Clare died on the 19th of December after waiting up to 16 hours on a trolley at University Hospital Limerick.
Aoife Johnston was just 16. Despite desperate pleas from her family, she was left on a trolley at the Hospital’s Accident and Emergency Department for a period of between 13 and 16 hours. She was eventually prescribed antibiotics when she was finally seen, but died from bacterial meningitis a couple of days after she fell ill.
By the time she had been prescribed the antibiotics needed, her condition had already deteriorated past the point of recovery. It is understood she was classified as a ‘category two’ patient, meaning that her condition was not regarded as life-threatening, and she was not seen in time, with the emergency department at UHL struggling with overcrowding on the day Aoife attended.
Meningitis is a serious illness involving inflammation of the protective membranes which surround the brain and spinal cord, that requires treatment with antibiotics. It can be extremely serious if not treated quickly.
While Aoife’s death has been described as ‘sudden,’ this was not a case of a cardiac arrest, but rather of a child feeling ill to the point of attending A&E and then being made to wait up to 16 hours for treatments which could have saved her. It appears antibiotics were simply administered too late, despite calls from her family to treat her. The nightmare Aoife’s family now live through not only lies in the fact their precious daughter is gone, but also in the manner in which she was treated at her local hospital, somewhere which should have been a place of protection and care.
“We will get justice for you, Aoife,” Meagan Johnston, Aoife’s older sister, said from the altar at her funeral Mass, highlighting in just a few words the appalling tragedy of Aoife’s death in the care of Ireland’s healthcare system.
As the priest who celebrating the funeral of the much-loved and popular schoolgirl told devastated mourners at her requiem Mass, “we should not be here”. And he is right.
Fr Arnold Rosney described the 16-year-old as “a beautiful young woman” and “a wonderful daughter,” as well as a great classmate to her fellow pupils at St. Caimin’s Community School. Mourners heard that Aoife, seen smiling on holidays in a beautiful photo released by her family, was someone who lit up a room. Her school principal remembered her as “a fabulous young woman, a great girl with a massive circle of friends [who was] liked by everybody”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, extending his sympathies to Aoife’s broken-hearted family, confirmed a review of her treatment is now underway. A Serious Incident Management Team has been established to review the care she received. But an inquiry, a report, sincere condolences… haven’t we heard all of this before? And yet, does anything change?
A 16 year old-dying in a major Irish hospital because she had to wait for hours to receive antibiotics is a shocking headline, but a sad reality in an Ireland which so often likes to pride itself on being modern and advanced and compassionate.
We are, after all, supposed to be a developed and wealthy nation with a well-funded health service — so why are teenagers dying on hospital trolleys?
It is fair to say that University Hospital Limerick has a poor reputation on the whole. As recently as last night, a ‘major internal incident’ was declared at UHL as the beleaguered hospital continues to battle severe overcrowding in the wake of the death just days ago. It has been pointed out that the staff in UHL have been pleading for help for years with no resolve. Multiple politicians, patients, and staff have spelled out since problems emerged as far back as 2009 — yet the situation just keeps getting worse.
Top consultant at UHL, Prof. Declan Lyons, speaking to RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland yesterday warned of the dire situation posed by the “inhumane and dangerous” conditions which remain at UHL – despite renewed promises to do better in the wake of the teenager’s death. Serious overcrowding and long waiting times to be seen mean that the hospital is a “national basket case,” the consultant Physician and Geriatrician said, adding that the environment in the hospital’s emergency department is now extremely hard to work in.
Prof Lyons said patients on trolleys there are being “crammed together” with hardly enough space between one trolley and the next for staff to treat patients. The hospital is like something from a war zone, according to first hand reports, and people are now at the point where they would rather stay at home than present there – because the general sense is that darkening the doors is sometimes like taking your life in your hands.
Since the news of Aoife Johnston’s death, one health worker from UHL said that his own father died weeks after waiting up to 14 hours for a ward bed. Julian Naughton’s dad Patrick (86) died in August. Mr Naughton told The Independent that he frequently sees elderly people crying out for help, but that the A&E remains like a “cattle market” despite its notoriety. His story, one of many, only serves to illustrate that our healthcare system is in a permanent state of crisis. Some have argued that there are endemic problems within the HSE which money can’t solve.
Why was such a nightmare allowed to unfold? Have poor conditions in our hospitals reached a point of normalisation? And where was the national outcry: the vigils, the hashtags, the protests over a teenager’s death from meningitis in an Irish hospital?
It is also noteworthy that the passing of Aoife Johnston was only reported by RTE, the national broadcaster, five days later on Christmas Eve. Her death was not initially reported, and an article finally appeared only after an investigation was announced. Surely this is yet another damning indictment of our media’s failure to hold the Government and Ministers to account?
New Taoiseach Leo Varadkar did take several days to issue a statement, but there has so far been blanket silence from Health Minister Stephen Donnelly as the local community still reels from the teenager’s preventable death. Nothing, it seems, even abject failure, will lead to an Irish minister writing his resignation letter,
Fortunately, calls for an independent inquiry have been made. Richard O’Donohoe was one TD who said he felt the HSE are simply “not listening, not learning”. Many of us will agree. Adding that he cannot understand why this is the case, the Independent politician joins many of us who no longer have faith in the HSE or in any investigation which will now take place.
The reality is that a young girl is dead, a family has been shattered into pieces, and the shambles that is our national health service never seems to be fully accountable. We have seen this happen too many times before. If there is any justice, an independent investigation will now take place, and for once, our Health Minister and our HSE will face questions which demand real answers. Heartbreak must give way to accountability, and accountability must give way to change. Someone is to blame.
The Mid West deserves better, Irish patients and staff deserve better, and Aoife Johnston deserved better. We can only hope her death is a watershed moment for our Health Service and our leaders, because no family should ever have to go through what her family are now enduring. Let’s hope that Aoife’s legacy is change.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.