Northern Ireland news

Dr Watt patient 'frightened he made me a lot worse'

Exactly three years after an unprecedented patient recall was ordered following concerns about a Belfast neurologist, a new group of patients has learned of catastrophic failings in their treatment. Health Correspondent Seanín Graham speaks to one woman who has just discovered she underwent an invasive procedure when there was no need for it

Consultant neurologist Dr Michael Watt is at the centre of the biggest patient recall in Northern Ireland due to safety concerns about his work
Seanín Graham

CHARLOTTE Burton vividly remembers her first meeting with Dr Michael Watt, when he made a diagnosis without "laying a finger" on her.

Leaving a private clinic six years ago, the Belfast mother-of-two said she skipped out the door "delighted" as it was the first time she was given an answer about the excruciating headaches which had destroyed her quality of life for almost a decade.

The consultant neurologist said she had a spinal fluid leakage and referred her back onto the NHS.

Within days the then 42-year-was sent to what she described as a "store room" in the Royal Victoria Hospital for an invasive procedure normally carried out in an operating theatre.

Known as an 'epidural blood patch', the patient's own blood is injected into their lower back to relieve low pressure headaches. An anaesthetist and nursing support staff are supposed to be present.

"It was just Dr Watt and a young fellow in a shirt and tie. Nurses were coming in to get bandages for a ward, they weren’t there for me. I look back now and think - how did I let that go ahead without questioning that? My kids and my husband, Andrew, were also in the room which was crazy. But honestly, I thought I was there and getting an answer from the top man, and that was enough for me," Mrs Burton told The Irish News.

"I had to lie on my side. He explained I would feel a needle going in and I would feel pressure on my legs. I have a very straight spine and he struggled to get the right part, he kept hitting the bone on the notches of my spine. I remember that as I kept jumping each time. I got really worried. The pressure was terrible.

"As soon as he stopped, it started to ease. Within five to ten minutes he told me to be on my way and that he would be in touch. He left with the young guy.

"It was a really small room. I had to get up and I felt myself go white. Andrew came in with my coat, and I knew there was something very wrong. My legs went. At that stage, the two nurses came back in. They weren’t there to care for me but they just took over. And thank goodness for them." 

Two weeks ago, a "bombshell" letter arrived for Mrs Burton from the Belfast trust informing her she is one of 45 patients who should never have undergone the procedure as there was was "no clinical evidence" to support it. The trust also admitted her care was "unsatisfactory" and "fell below a standard we would expect".

It was the first time the trust has ever contacted her in the three years since the massive recall scandal into the consultant neurologist's work broke, despite Mrs Burton asking to be reviewed twice in 2018.

Significantly, it is also the closest the trust has come to admitting liability.

Sitting in the living home of her home on the outskirts of Belfast with her husband by her side - they have been together since they were 13-years-old - the charity worker recalled how "terrified" she was in the weeks after the procedure.

"I took to my bed. I was struggling to walk. My back was so sore - I’ve had a back issue since and it’s got much worse," she said.

"My head was shocking. I have never got one hour’s release from my headaches, the procedure didn’t make one button of difference."

She received a five-minute telephone call from Dr Watt months later after she queried why there had been no review.

Like hundreds of other neurology patients, Mrs Burton is now seeking legal action.

"You start to think back and ask yourself, why did I let that happen in a storeroom? It was so invasive. I let him diagnose me without looking at me. He didn't lay a finger on me. You start to question yourself," she added.

"I’m just really frightened he’s made me an awful lot worse. I’m really scared. I’ve completely lost faith in the health system," she added.

In a statement, the Belfast trust said: "We sincerely apologise for any upset and anxiety that this letter has caused, and Belfast Trust will arrange for a senior member of staff to make contact with Ms Burton."

Niall O'Hare of O'Hare solicitors in Belfast, who is taking the case along with several other former Dr Watt patients, said the trust's letter is "very significant".

"In my view...this is the first time that the trust has publicly admitted liability for the treatment provided by Dr Watt. It is of course limited to a relatively small proportion of all those patients who endured a 'blood patch' procedure at the hands of Dr Watt. It seems to me that it would be a relatively simple matter for the trust now to conduct a review of all those patients who had a similar procedure.

"Whilst it is appreciated that an admission of liability has now been made, it is difficult to understand why Ms Burton concerns have only now been addressed three years after the first recall."

Timeline of a scandal: Dr Michael Watt recall

MAY 2018: 2,500 patients of Dr Michael Watt's 'active caseload' were recalled by the Belfast trust due to "safety concerns" about his work. He was based at the Royal Victoria Hospital for more than 20 years and also carried out extensive private work. He is withdrawn from clinical duties but not suspended, remaining on full pay

- Multiple Sclerosis patients as well as people suffering from Parkinson's, stroke and Motor Neurone Disease were among those affected

- A redress scheme announced for those who suffer "profound implications" following misdiagnosis is announced by the Department of Health. Hundreds more private patients are also to be recalled

- The RQIA also ordered to carry out a review into patient deaths

- Independent inquiry set up under top QC, Brett Lockhart

NOVEMBER 2018: A further 1,044 cases discharged from the medic's care were recalled in November 2018 by the trust

JANUARY 2019: Dr Watt temporarily suspended from practising as a doctor in the UK

JULY 2019: Irish News reveals the medic has applied to retire on medical grounds

NOVEMBER 2019: Dr Watt offers his "sincere sympathy" to those affected following a BBC Spotlight programme. A department report finds that one in five patients received an 'unsecure' or unreliable diagnosis

SEPTEMBER 2020: Irish News reports Dr Watt leaves trust, 18 months after his suspension

NOVEMBER 2020: Lockhart inquiry elevated to a public inquiry

APRIL 2021: Third and 'final' recall of a further 209 patients by Belfast trust. Officials confirm that a review of 66 'blood patch' patients found that 45 had procedure carried out unnecessarily. Apology is issued and all 45 affected receive written confirmation

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