Mother died before she could see her healthy daughter: Doctors call for reappraisal of a treatment used to prevent premature labour amid fears over the dangers. Liz Hunt reports

LEONARD BOWYER, 73, sits in the cluttered kitchen of his home in Bushey, Hertfordshire, clutching a yellow plastic folder. It contains the death certificate of his daughter-in-law, Samantha Howard, which cites the drug ritodrine as one cause of her death at the age of 22 in September 1991.

The folder also contains newspaper cuttings about the drug, pages photocopied from medical reference books at the local library, and papers from medical journals. Mr Bowyer is only interested in the facts. 'I keep telling her,' he says, gesturing to his wife Rosemary, 'it's the only way we'll get justice. But Mum here keeps at herself, wondering if she couldn't have done more.'

Peter Howard, 30, sits holding 17- month-old Zoe awkwardly in his arms. He and Samantha had been married for just a year. A painfully shy man, he is happy for his step- father to speak on his behalf. 'Both Samantha and Peter were gentle people, they weren't street- wise; they needed to be cared for here in our home,' Mr Bowyer explained.

Somehow, that fact makes Mrs Howard's death all the more tragic. When she went into labour on 11 August 1991, at 33 weeks pregnant, she and her husband trusted absolutely in the doctors and nursing staff who were caring for her.

At Watford General Hospital where she was first admitted, doctors were happy for labour to continue, and a Caesarean section was planned. That night another woman gave birth to twins, according to Mr Bowyer, and because there would have been no incubator for the Howards' baby she was transferred to Hillingdon Hospital. There she was put on ritodrine. The drug is not used at Watford.

Neither of the Howards asked questions about what was being done, or why she was being given the drug. When the pulse in Mrs Howard's neck was beating so fast, and she was coughing and spluttering as she struggled to breathe, her husband tried to reassure her. There didn't seem to be anyone to ask, Mr Bowyer said.

'He never left her side. Then she got to such a bad state that they had to do an emergency Caesarean in the middle of the night,' Mrs Bowyer said. Zoe, a healthy baby weighing 5lb 12oz was delivered on 15 August and spent just an hour in an incubator. She is a friendly smiling child, eager to be held and not shy of strangers. Her mother didn't ever see her daughter or hold her.

'Samantha never breathed on her own account again and was put on a ventilator. She never really came around after that,' Mr Bowyer said. She died on 9 September. 'The hospital told us they did not know what they were treating. But that drug had destroyed her lungs. She was a girl that never smoked or drank, she could run in the sea at Yarmouth in the cold water with no problems. She was very healthy. How could this happen?'

A verdict of misadventure was recorded at Uxbridge Coroner's Court in August last year. The cause of death was given as diffuse pulmonary fibrosis, adult respiratory distress syndrome, and ritodrine use in pregnancy.

Mr Bowyer does not accept the verdict and is now pursuing action against the hospital for compensation for Mr Howard and Zoe. He also wants to warn other women about the drug.

'We've suffered a lot seeing her torn apart like that. There might be other women going into hospital to have a baby, trusting themselves to the hospital. Then they die and they say 'sorry, it is misadventure'.'

Hillingdon Hospital NHS Trust was unavailable for comment.

(Photograph omitted)