When Ernest Ashford was sent home from Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust he was expecting to make a full recovery. A low grade tumour had been removed from his bowel and it seemed the operation had been a total success.
But when he was discharged on the following Sunday, alarm bells began to ring. “He was pleased to be home but I said I was not very happy about this - it seems too soon. No one had told me what to do with his colostomy bag until I asked,” said his wife Sue Williams-Ashford.
The 65-year-old equestrian course builder had never missed a day’s work but was now struggling to eat. He slept most of the following day and by Wednesday it was apparent he was seriously ill. He was alternatively vomiting and experiencing violent bowel movements.
His wife decided to take him back to A&E. “They were bloody awful. I told the receptionist that I had my husband in the car and he is seriously ill. I was told that the wheelchairs were by the door and a paramedic on a cigarette break watched as I struggled to get him into the hospital. Anyone with half a brain cell could see how ill he was,” recalls Mrs Williams-Ashford, 61.
After eventually being led to a cubicle, she helped the doctor take blood and was then left alone and wondering what was going to happen next. “When I went outside the cubicle to see what was going on I was told I was causing an obstruction. The nurses were discussing their love lives in no uncertain terms,” she says.
That evening after being seen by a registrar, Mr Ashford was taken down to theatre for an emergency operation. “I was told they had to resection the bowel and that now he would have the colostomy bag permanently. I thought `oh well – at least I will still have the man’.”
The next time she saw him however he was declining rapidly and drifting in and out of consciousness. A leakage from the original operation had resulted in renal failure but a shortage of intensive care beds meant he had to be treated on a general surgical ward.
By the following evening he was unable to recognise his own daughter but was told he would no longer receive one to one nursing. He was dying from blood poisoning although this fact was never communicated to his desperately worried family.
“I left at 8pm but I will never forgive myself because he said `please don’t go’. I said `you need the rest I’ll see you in the morning’”.
Mrs Williams-Ashford received a telephone call at 3.55am. “I was told there was cause for concern and I might like to come in. When I got there I was kept waiting and waiting in the ward. A young doctor arrived and told me that unfortunately my husband had died. I kept asking to see him but they said the doctor was with him.”
She was eventually taken there by a nurse. “I kissed him and that was when I started getting suspicious because he was so cold.”
It emerged that Mr Ashford had not been seen by a doctor or nurse since 9pm the previous evening spending seven hours alone and unmonitored which meant he could have been dead for a considerable amount of time with no one realising, she says.
Looking back Mrs Williams-Ashford believes the hospital made two grave mistakes before the operation which might have contributed to the leakage of poisonous fluids and his subsequent death.
He was not given any bowel preparation in advance and nor he was he given any dietary advice which meant he continued to eat normally ahead of the operation.
After the inquest she asked a senior manager at the hospital why, when it was apparent her husband was going to die, they had let her go home. She was told she had appeared very stressed and had a bad attitude.
“They treated you like you were an idiot,” she recalls. “He was ignored by the nurses. There were three other men in the part of the ward that Ernie was on. Two of them had had serious operations and were on drips. If they weren’t looking after my husband they weren’t looking after them either,” she says.
“They messed up the operation in the first place and then he didn’t get the nursing care he should have received. When I asked them why, it was like they just wanted to pat me on the head.”
“We had only been married for nearly three years. It was a second marriage but we were like one big family. Everything was wonderful. I was happier than I had been for a very long time. I felt completely robbed by Ernie’s death. I didn’t expect people at the hospital to put their arms round me and hug me but I didn’t expect them to act as they did. They just didn’t seem to care,” she says.
Eventually the hospital agreed to pay a small amount of compensation although it refused to accept liability following Mr Ashford’s death. “I just wanted someone to hold up their hands and say I messed up. The money was not the point. I felt I had won a moral victory and just could not face going to court,” she adds.