Norwich mother whose life was devastated by NHS errors awarded £1.5m in compensation

PUBLISHED: 12:57 16 May 2018 | UPDATED: 12:17 17 May 2018

Virginia Atchison. Picuture: JMW

Virginia Atchison. Picuture: JMW


A mother whose life was devastated by a serious spinal condition that is frequently misdiagnosed by the NHS has been awarded a seven-figure compensation settlement by the county’s busiest hospital and community health trust.

Virginia Atchison. Picuture: JMWVirginia Atchison. Picuture: JMW

Virginia Atchison, who lives in Norwich, suffered a permanent spinal injury called cauda equina syndrome (CES) after blunders by NHS staff meant she was denied urgent surgery that would have allowed her to make a complete recovery.

Ms Atchison, 45, was left with permanent nerve damage causing significant pain in both legs and poor bowel and bladder control, frequently leading to incontinence.

She has to use a catheter every day, has lost all feeling in parts of her saddle and has lost all sexual function.

She can also only walk for short distances and had to give up work.

Now, she has been handed £1.5m by the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) and Norfolk Community Health and Care (NCHC) to help get her life back on track.

The mother-of-one said: “My injury has robbed me of so many things and I don’t want that to keep happening to other people. I’m relieved that I will now have financial security to cope with my disabilities but the clock can never be turned back and that’s something I have to live with.

“I’ve lost a lot independence and dignity due to my misdiagnosis but if I can get the message out about cauda equina syndrome and save one other person from having their life ruined by it then at least something worthwhile has been achieved.”

Ms Atchison’s ordeal began in July 2010 when she went to accident and emergency at NNUH with severe back pain and an electric shock sensation in her legs.

She was referred to an orthopaedic doctor, as it was suspected she has suffered a slipped disc, and then she was sent for pain management.

By December Ms Atchison was still in significant pain in her back and both legs and was referred for physiotherapy by her GP.

She told the physiotherapist that she was also struggling to pass urine normally and had numbness in her thighs.

The physiotherapist wrongly referred her back to orthopaedic triage at hospital when cauda equina syndrome should have been suspected and Ms Atchison should have been referred for an urgent MRI scan.

Ms Atchison finally underwent an MRI scan in February 2011 which revealed a large disc was putting severe pressure on her nerves but this was misreported by a doctor and she was still not sent for the urgent surgery she required.

By August 2011 both her legs were numb, she was in excruciating pain which had spread to her feet and she was finding it more and more difficult to pass urine.

She went to see her GP but because the hospital had not suspected anything serious, the GP was not concerned.

However when Ms Atchison returned to the doctor on August 12, after she had been unable to pass urine for 24 hours, she was sent back to hospital.

While waiting to be seen in the orthopaedic outpatients department she completely lost control of her bladder and bowel.

Ms Atchison was taken for a further MRI scan and told that she needed surgery that evening.

But by this point it was too late to prevent permanent nerve damage due to the failure of the physiotherapist who Ms Atchison saw in December 2010 and the doctor who misinterpreted the scan in February 2011.

Before she became disabled, Ms Atchison worked as an assistant shop manager, but now cannot work.

And her condition has had a psychological impact too.

She is now dedicating her life to raising awareness of cauda equina syndrome and supporting other sufferers by volunteering for the Cauda Equina Syndrome Association (CESA).

Ms Atchison said: “I also want to give other sufferers hope that there is help out there and they don’t have to cope with it on their own. I want to reach out to them through the Cauda Equina Syndrome Association which has been such a support to me through the dark times.”

Eddie Jones, Ms Atchison’s solicitor at JMW, said symptoms of cauda equina syndrome are a surgical emergency however appalling errors were made in Ms Atchison’s care and lessons have to be learned.

He said: “There were missed opportunities to diagnose cauda equina syndrome and refer Ginny for treatment. The errors in Ginny’s case date back to 2010 but JMW continues to be contacted by patients on a weekly basis who say their cauda equina syndrome has gone undiagnosed and treated.

“Medical professionals firstly need to recognise the signs and secondly understand that they represent an emergency and take swift action. Cauda equina syndrome is treatable but the window of opportunity is small and if missed the patient’s life can be completely devastated.

“I am pleased to have secured such a significant compensation settlement for Ginny because as well as not being able to hold down a job she also now requires a specially adapted house to enable her to safely manage her condition due to her living in a completely unsuitable first floor flat. However the tragedy is that her disabilities would have been avoided if she had received an appropriate level of care.”

Cauda equina syndrome is caused when the cauda equina nerves at the base of the spine become compressed, frequently due to a slipped disc. The red flags include back pain / sciatica that is accompanied by bowel and bladder problems, such as not being able to go or being incontinent, numbness or altered sensation around the saddle area or legs, or leg pain, weakness or altered sensation.

A statement from the NNUH said: “We offer our sincere apologies to Virginia for the distress caused by the standard of care she received.

“All incidents are investigated to ensure that lessons are learnt and help us to identify whether we can improve our systems to avoid a similar situation occurring again. When identified, we ensure that any changes are implemented. We share those learnings with colleagues and the wider healthcare system to help improve future patient care. We hope the agreed compensation package will be of benefit to Virginia.”

A spokesperson at NCHC added: “Our thoughts are with Ms Atchison and her family and we apologise for the failings in her care. We deeply regret that the standard of care was inadequate and the distress caused to Ms Atchison.

“Patient safety is our first priority and we have developed and implemented a new protocol with our healthcare partners improving our response to suspected Cauda Equina Syndrome. We have also shared the results of an investigation into the case with staff, to minimise the likelihood of a similar incident happening again.”

For more information about the Cauda Equina Syndrome Association (CESA), or to access support, visit the website or the CESA Facebook support group.

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