Detached throat tube found by dead baby

'Mercy killing' debate: In the wake of the Thomas Creedon case Mary Braid talks to parents of brain-damaged children
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The Independent Online
Police investigating the suspected mercy killing of a brain-damaged baby girl at a children's hospital said yesterday they were trying to establish how a tracheotomy tube became detached from her throat.

Superintendent Bill Kerr said 50 people who were on the Liebert ward of Manchester Royal Children's hospital last Thursday when the problem with baby Abigail Watts's life support equipment was discovered were being questioned.

He said detectives were keeing "an open mind" about the death of Abigail, aged 14 months, who died on Tuesday after being transferred to intensive care. An inquiry was launched at the request of the coroner, Martin Coppel, after hospital staff reported they were suspicious about the way she died.

Abigail died the day after the start of a high-profile High Court appeal by the parents of Thomas Creedon, a brain-damaged two-year-old, for permission to allow him to die. Detectives believe that may have some bearing on Abigail's death. The Creedon case has opened wide public debate on the quality of life of severely disabled children.

Mr Kerr said he could not go into details as to when the tube was found or who made the discovery but that it was found in the cot with the baby.

About 20 seriously ill children were in the ward, which was divided into glass partitioned cubicles. Abigail's parents, Julie and Andrew, from Little Hulton, Salford, have been interviewed along with nurses on the unit and relatives visiting other children at the time.

Last night, as a tearful Mrs Watts, 30, asked for peace and privacy to grieve for her baby, neighbours spoke of the couple's devotion to their daughter.

Within minutes of Abigail being born doctors suggested to Mrs Watts and her husband Andrew, 32, a designer, that the life support machine keeping her alive could be switched off, but the couple refused.

Abigail had been in and out of hospital all of her short life. She suffered from Cloverleaf Syndrome, a rare condition which causes the bones of a baby's skull to fuse and prevents the brain from developing. A month ago Mrs Watts told police who raised pounds 1,000 for a special wheelchair for Abigail, "Every day she lives is a bonus". The couple were seeking planning permission to build an extension on their home to create a mini- hospital ward where Abby could receive 24 hour care.

Det Supt Kerr said the investigation would be "thorough, sympathetic and sensitive". He said Abigail's parents had suffered tremendous tragedy.

Since 1988, the hospital has operated a "bleep" system following the death of a child in controversial circumstances. There was an alarm system which indicated any breathing difficulties such as when a tube became detached. Experts would be examining this system which was linked to the nursing station in the ward. "The hospital authorities regard the equipment as totally safe, tamper-proof and foolproof," said Mr Kerr.

Mr Kerr said he "didn't want to give a view" on speculation that it was a mercy killing. The police inquiry is expected to last two weeks. Police also sought to reassure parents with other children at the hospital that their safety is not threatened.

The Creedons, from Hull, say their son Thomas is blind, deaf, subject to fits and in constant pain. Doctors are expected to oppose their application to allow him to die by withdrawing artificial feeding. He is currently fed by a tube to his stomach.

On Monday Thomas became a ward of court with his parents' permission. Their application is expected to be heard in October.

Francine Stock, page15