Ryan Senior went for a routine operation at Birmingham Children’s Hospital but a series of mistakes meant the 16-year-old lost his life. Mother Sarah Halliwell spoke to Jeanette Oldham.
His room is how he left it that morning.
Sarah Halliwell visits often, to lay down on the bed where her son Ryan Senior once slept.
“Some days I need to think he’s still here,” she says, sobbing gently. “To feel him close to me again.
“I lie on his bed and close my eyes and feel he’s there, sat on his computer.
“He was my world.”
Ryan was Sarah’s only child, her best friend, her whole life.
He knew he was loved because his mum, who had brought him up alone, never stopped telling him.
She told him the last time she saw his face, moments before he was taken into theatre at Birmingham Children’s Hospital on February 16, 2010, for what was supposed to be a minor operation.
Instead, the 16-year-old lost his life when consultant surgeon Harish Chandran used a sharp instrument rather than a blunt version, tearing a hole in a vein and causing a fatal gas embolism, leading to organ failure and cardiac arrest.
Sarah, from Redditch, had gone into shock when medics had rushed out of theatre to warn her and Ryan’s aunt, Tracy, that they were fighting to save her son’s life. His heart had stopped, they said, but they didn’t know why.
When they returned with the terrible news that they had lost Ryan, Sarah made a plaintive plea.
“I asked them to take my heart... to save his life,” she said. “They told me that that could not be done.”
Her son had been slightly apprehensive about the 40-minute laparoscopy – keyhole surgery – but doctors had assured the family it was a low-risk routine procedure.
Before being wheeled into surgery, his mum had given a final kiss and hug to her son and told him: “I love you. See you later.” The teenager told his mum he loved her too.
Catastrophe struck just minutes into the operation.
Incredibly, at around the time doctors were fighting for Ryan’s life his mum sensed things were going terribly wrong.
She said: “After about an hour and 25 minutes, when I knew he should or could be back, I felt a pain in my chest. It was weird. I’d never had chest pains before. I was beginning to worry that something could be wrong.”
Ten minutes later and medics rushed into the ward and informed the mum they were fighting for Ryan’s life. They later returned to deliver the most unimaginable news – her beloved son was gone. Sarah and Tracy were told they could not see Ryan’s body. Numb, she left the hospital with just a bag full of his belongings handed to her by staff – along with bereavement leaflets. The heartbroken women drove home in stunned silence.
“I think I was crying... but more than anything I was crying inside,” says Sarah, her voice breaking.
The coming days passed by in a painful blur, as did the weeks and months that followed. Sarah said: “I would pretend he was just out shopping. I am still able to do that. Here. Now. At home.
“Of course deep down I know he isn’t.”
Sarah had hoped a long-awaited inquest into the tragedy could provide some small comfort by finally airing in public what had gone wrong.
But the week-long hearing actually left more questions than answers.
A jury heard Mr Chandran had used a sharp trochar instead of a blunt one, causing the fatal injury. He admitted he had not checked the instrument before inserting it into Ryan’s body.
Yet there was conflicting evidence on who was to blame for the trochar selection, with the surgeon blaming nurses.
The court also heard claims of an unexplained second incision on Ryan’s body, while potentially important anaesthetic data from the operation were lost.
The jury eventually recorded a narrative verdict, following guidance from Birmingham coroner Aidan Cotter.
For Ryan’s family, that was another blow as they had wanted to see a neglect verdict – or even one of unlawful killing.
Now, four weeks on, the mum is still aghast that no-one has been held personally accountable for Ryan’s death.
Sarah said: “I feel quite angered towards Chandran... that he can say that he didn’t even look at an instrument he’s putting inside my son.
“This might be his first death but, personally, I don’t think he should still be a surgeon. It’s no good saying that that was a one-off. It was my son who was the one-off. When given a trochar by a nurse, any instrument, it comes down to common sense that you should look at the instrument you are putting inside someone.’’
But the anger fades as she talks of her Ryan, a popular teenager who wanted to become a mechanic. “As a child Ryan drew lots of different cars, he was always artistic. But he was more of a hands-on child, preferring to do practical things with his hands, like tinkering with cars in the back garden with his grandad,’’ she recalled.
“He used to say he wanted to learn mechanics.... to take care of his mum.”
Some say time is a healer. Not for Sarah.
“My world has totally been destroyed. I don’t feel like I have or will have a life,” she said.
“They took the only thing I lived for.”
Yet Sarah is determined to find some kind of justice for her son. She is set to sue Birmingham Children’s Hospital NHS Foundation Trust over the tragedy. The mum says: “I simply don’t care about money. It is just another way of holding them to account.”
But in reality, no court or compensation can ever put right what went wrong on February 16, 2010.
“I feel.. I just wonder if he was calling for me,’’ says Sarah.
“People say that he was asleep, he didn’t feel anything. But I felt that pain.
“I just feel he would have been shouting for me. I can’t bear that he could have been calling out for me... and I didn’t, and couldn’t, help him.”