Reporters should not become involved with their subjects

In more than 20 years of medical journalism, in which I have heard countless tales of woe from patients, it is a principle to which I have adhered. How can a journalist hope to report objectively on a case if he is siding with one of the participants? For reasons I find hard to explain, I have suspended that principle in the case of Patricia Briody...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Patricia Briody has spent 11 years fighting for the right to be a mother. She has wanted a family of her own ever since she was 19 and was deprived of her womb - and the two children it carried, who were both stillborn - as a result of an appalling medical error. Ms Briody is now 46. The story of how she sought to realise her dream is an extraordinary tale of triumph and despair.

At first she fostered, then she became a primary school teacher, nurturing other people's offspring. Her early, violent, marriage failed, but she later found happiness with a new partner. A chance meeting with a lawyer over a decade ago, who suggested she might have a case against the hospital that had injured her, kindled the hope that she might, after all, have a family - through surrogacy. If she could win a sufficiently large sum to pay the costs of treatment at a fertility clinic, her hopes of motherhood might finally be fulfilled.

It was a unique case that would have made legal history. Instead, earlier this year it ended in crushing defeat. Her dream appeared to be over. But a new twist has lit the flame of hope once more.

An anonymous donor, moved by the exceptional circumstances of the case, has offered to pay the costs of surrogacy treatment. Ms Briody and her partner, John Hill, 37, already have five frozen embryos waiting in a fertility clinic. All they lack is a womb to put them in.

My first encounter with Ms Briody was in a late phone call one evening a year ago. I was preparing to go home and picked up the receiver reluctantly. "Would you be interested in a medical negligence case?" said a woman's voice. I admit that my heart sank. Like all health reporters, I am a target for aggrieved patients wanting to tell of the crimes and misdemeanours of the NHS. Invariably there is too much detail and too little proof, and the cases are repetitive.

I gave my standard response. Would she like to set down brief details on a single sheet of paper and send it to me? "So you are not interested?" she asked. I paused. I don't know why I relented - perhaps it was her flat Lancashire vowels, or her deadpan delivery. "All right," I said. "Tell me, as briefly as you can."

For the next 40 minutes I remained transfixed, partly by the extraordinary facts of her story and partly by the cool detachment with which she related them. There was no drama, no high emotion, no attempt to persuade.

She let the facts speak for themselves, showing a forensic capacity to separate out what was relevant and what moved the story on. Above all, there was not a trace of self pity. The bare bones of her story are these. She married young, against the wishes of her parents, and was pregnant at 17. She had a malformed pelvis which meant she couldn't give birth naturally, but the problem was not spotted even after the pregnancy ended in an emergency Caesarean and a stillborn child. When she gave birth a second time her womb burst, the child was stillborn and she required an emergency hysterectomy. That was in 1973. She had been the victim of gross negligence, but her case wasn't proved for a quarter of a century.

For the next 15 years she tried to pick up the threads of her life. She fostered children and worked in a pub managed by her husband in a rough area of Wigan. In the late Eighties she was viciously assaulted by a bunch of drinkers whom she was trying to eject at closing time. She suffered back injuries and was confined to a wheelchair for six months. Then her husband left her.

The break-up of her marriage, though painful, proved ultimately to be her liberation. She started training as a teacher, something she had always wanted to do, and sought compensation for her injuries in the assault. It was while consulting a solicitor that she happened to mention she would like to find the graves of her two stillborn children. She described the circumstances of their birth and her solicitor suggested she might have a case against the hospital. Her legal marathon began.

That was in 1989. The case, against St Helens and Knowsley health authority, was nearly thrown out at the start because of the lapse of time, but she appealed and won. Once the case was heard, she won again. The health authority appealed and she won a third time. All that remained was for the sum of damages to be decided. Her victory was almost complete.

I wrote the first of several articles about her story and kept in touch over the ensuing months. She lived in a village outside St Helens and in December, when she called to say the hearing on damages was to start the following week in the High Court in London, I invited her to stay in my house from which she could get easily to the court.

She arrived with a her 78-year-old mother, a tiny bright-eyed woman who apologised repeatedly for causing us trouble. My 11-year-old stepdaughter took to her immediately.

Patricia Briody looked younger than her 46 years. She talked rapidly, but cogently and smiled a lot. She struck me as a cheerful stoic, gritty without being gloomy, and undeniably impressive. I asked the obvious question, glancing from daughter to mother: what had it been like living with the case for 11 years? They gave me a puzzled look and delivered the equally obvious answer - there had been good times and bad times. I was left to imagine what others, who had undergone a similar ordeal, might have said - how they had suffered, how their lives had been destroyed, how nothing could ever compensate for their loss. But that is not the Briody's style.

Her solicitor, Helen Barry, says: "She is a very brave, strong-minded woman. Many in her position would certainly have given up long ago." Professor Ian Craft, the fertility expert who is treating her, said: "Why shouldn't she be given a chance? She has been waiting, waiting all these years. She has guts. And she is a nice person."

A month later in January, I was at the court to hear the decision on damages. Ms Briody was supposed to have arrived at 9am, an hour before the judgment was due to be handed down, so she could be briefed on the decision by her counsel and mentally prepare herself to face the television cameras gathered outside. But her train was delayed and, with her mother and other relatives, she arrived with minutes to spare. She was ushered into court to hear Mrs Justice Ebsworth deliver the cruellest of cruel blows.

She was awarded £80,000 for pain and suffering. This was less than the £110,000 the health authority had paid into court before the hearing, so she automatically became liable for the costs of the case, estimated at over £100,000, wiping out the entire award. After an 11-year legal battle, she was left penniless.

Minutes later she faced the cameras outside the court, her eyes bright with tears. "If that is justice, there is no justice," she said. "People get millions for slander and libel and I get this. If Cherie Blair can have a baby at the age of 46, why can't I?"

There was nothing for the costs of surrogacy - the judge considered the chances of success at less than 1 per cent as too low - and nothing for loss of earnings (she had claimed the start of her career as a teacher had been delayed by her ordeal).

Her dream was shattered. She returned to St Helens and took a week off from work.

But Ms Briody is not a quitter. Her brother offered to pay for the cost of the initial stages of treatment at Professor Craft's London clinic. To the surprise of the experts, she and her partner, John, now have five frozen embryos. With the offer from another of Professor Craft's patients to contribute to the costs of the surrogacy treatment, they could make a first attempt - if a woman were to come forward and offer to carry their baby. The offer would have to be an act of charity. There is no money to pay the surrogate.

Even if a volunteer surrogate mother could be found, the chances of success remain small, because of the age of Ms Briody's eggs. Yet it is only because the legal process has been so long and tortuous that she finds herself now, at the 11th hour of her reproductive life, wondering if she will be granted this last chance. I believe, after all she has been through, she deserves it.

Jeremy Laurance is health editor of 'The Independent'