Staff at hospital dismissed chest pain as 'hysteria': Doctors call for reappraisal of a treatment used to prevent premature labour amid fears over the dangers. Liz Hunt reports

KEVIN CORAM cannot hide the anger and bitterness at his wife, Deborah's, death. He rails against the doctors, nurses and midwives who, when she complained of chest pain and difficulty in breathing during labour, dismissed it as hysteria and anxiety, and gave her some cough medicine and an inhaler. They did not suspect for a moment that the drug ritodrine might be responsible.

'We were both made to feel like troublemakers,' Mr Coram, 30, said. They had been married for two months when his wife died in July last year aged 20. He now cares for six-month-old Christopher, at his home in Walderslade, Chatham, Kent.

Christopher was Mrs Coram's second child. She had lost her first son, Daniel, in a cot death in March 1989. Her parents, Janet and Kenneth Wells, who live in Canterbury, say that during her second pregnancy their daughter took every precaution to safeguard her health and that of the baby. When she went into premature labour on 9 July last year, she was not worried. She believed she was 35 weeks pregnant although doctors at All Saints Hospital in Chatham, maintained it was 33 weeks and 3 days.

'Deborah was so far into the pregnancy she knew the baby would be all right. Neither she or Kevin wanted any drugs to stop labour,' Mr Wells said. But staff explained that the delay would give them a chance to give steroids which would help the baby breathe when it was born. 'They said he would have to go on a ventilator otherwise. Deb had seen Daniel, her first baby, on a ventilator when they'd tried to revive him. She didn't want to see that again.'

One day later she was admitted to the intensive care unit of Medway Hospital in Gillingham. Mrs Wells remembers her horror at seeing her daughter with 'dark blue finger nails and lips' struggling for breath. The family was initially told that Mrs Coram had a severe infection and pneumonia.

But tests showed no sign of an infection. Mrs Coram was now coughing up blood and had developed adult respiratory distress syndrome. The doctors were pessimistic about her chances. On 12 July, Christopher was born; he was a good colour and weighed 5lbs 4oz.

'We were more anxious about Debs. We stroked his head as they wheeled him past in the incubator but it didn't mean what it should have meant,' Mrs Wells said. 'I'd had all these visions of her sitting up in bed holding a new baby, and now here she was on a ventilator with him placed against her.' Deborah's condition worsened and her mother remembers watching her body and face swell as fluid built up. Dialysis offered some hope but on 23 July she had a heart attack, caused by pulmonary oedema and adult respiratory distress syndrome. Last month, a North Kent coroner recorded a verdict of accidental death on Mrs Coram. He said her treatment had been 'inept, negligent and careless', and that ritodrine had been used without full knowledge or appreciation of the risks.

Kevin Coram is taking action against Medway Health Authority. The authority declined to comment yesterday but said it was studying the coroner's report.

Now Mrs Wells is committed to warning others about ritodrine. 'There isn't anything left for me to do but this. Everything now is geared towards saving babies, but what about the mothers? Why didn't they listen to someone telling them she had chest pain and she couldn't breathe?

'I know that if she had been left alone then Christopher would have been born OK and she'd be here too.'

(Photograph omitted)