'You go to hospital to be cared for and you die'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Despite the agony of a fractured hip and elbow, Evelyn White was her usual jolly self when she was admitted to hospital in March, joking with her granddaughter about flirting with the "boys".

Despite the agony of a fractured hip and elbow, Evelyn White was her usual jolly self when she was admitted to hospital in March, joking with her granddaughter about flirting with the "boys".

Weeks later she was dead, having withered away to an emaciated shadow of her former self, after contracting Clostridium difficile. "There was no way granny was going to die when she went into hospital,"her granddaughter Hazel Harkness said. "She went in for a broken hip."

Mrs White's mother lived to 104 and her family was convinced that the 90-year-old pensioner, who insisted on living on her own and took no medication apart from folic acid health supplements, had the same sturdy genes.

"I was devastated that she went so quickly," her daughter, Fran Haines, said. "I feel very saddened. I am sure, if she hadn't caught that, she would have eventually come out of hospital." It was not until this particularly virulent hospital bug became news this week that Mrs Haines was even aware that her mother had suffered from it.

Like most people she had never heard of the new strain. But something in her memory made her go back and check the death certificate. There, as a secondary cause of death after Sepsis, was listed C.difficile.

Despite the number of cases soaring from fewer than 1,000 in 1990 to 43,672 in 2004, it has not received the same attention as MRSA - and the Haineses were equally ignorant that it posed such potentially lethal danger to patients.

"When she was diagnosed I said to the ward sister, 'Is this MRSA?', explained Mrs Haines's husband Des.

"She replied: 'Oh no', but she didn't say it was anything else. We thought Evelyn would go on for years. We never ever thought she was going to die in two or three weeks."

Mrs White was admitted at the end of March to Stoke Mandeville hospital, which has been particularly badly hit by a virulent strain of C.difficile, infecting 300 patients and killing 12. Having briefly gone into respite care while her daughter was on holiday, she had fallen twice, breaking an elbow and hip.

Paramedics, the family insisted, initially failed to diagnose the breaks when the uncomplaining pensioner told them she was fine. Twenty-four hours later she was finally admitted.

By the end of April, she began suffering from diarrhoea and she was moved to a side room. "She gradually started to lose interest in trying to walk and just wanted to sleep," said Mrs Haines.

"They didn't say what it was. She lost about seven kilos in a week to 10 days. She was very frail and unrecognisable. She was like a little skeleton."

After a while, her granddaughter explained, Mrs White stopped eating and lived on a drip. On 10 May she died. "For everyone, it hasn't sunk in yet," Mrs Harkness said. "It is difficult to put how we feel into words."

"I would say to Tony Blair, his health service is not what he makes it out to be," Mr Haines said. "You go to hospital to be cared for and you die. It is happening to an awful lot of people."

The Haines and their daughter fell ill themselves with sickness and diarrhoea after Mrs White died, a particularly worrying time for Mrs Harkness, who is expecting her second child. They never found out what had caused their illness but all subsequently recovered.

A Buckinghamshire Hospitals NHS Trust spokesman said that C.difficile had not been listed as the primary cause of death and insisted measures to contain the infection at Stoke Mandeville were working.

"These measures include the creation of an isolation ward, decontamination and deep cleaning of affected areas, and reinforcing the need to wash hands to staff, visitors and patients," he said. "In the past 10 days, one new case of C.difficile has been identified. This reflects a pattern seen since February of this year which shows the decline in the number of reported cases month on month."

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