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October 7, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:39am

Investigative journalist’s sepsis death leads to hospital procedure changes

By Nick Irving

A hospital has changed its procedures after a leading investigative journalist died from sepsis hours after being sent home.

A coroner criticised the hospital trust for its poor record keeping and said clinical observations on David May’s physical condition were not made.

May, 70, died at Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital last October – a day after he was an out patient having just a blood test.

May was an intrepid and courageous journalist for the Sunday Times and Time Out before joining ITN, Channel 4 and the BBC.

His family expressed concerns about his treatment in the 24 hours before his death.

May was being treated for leukaemia at the hospital.

But an inquest in Plymouth – his home city – heard that May developed neutropenic sepsis and suffered respiratory and cardiac failure.

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Dr Patrick Medd, consultant haemotologist, said neutropenic sepsis can kill in less than an hour.

He said: “There are not enough white blood cells in the blood to fight bacterial infection.”

The coroner Ian Arrow said that chemotherapy he was receiving ‘made him particularly vulnerable and his decline was very rapid’.

Doctors said May “felt fine” the day before he died and went home to eat a meal, ice cream and watch TV.

But he then began vomiting and had diarrhoea and was rushed back to the hospital from his Plymouth home.

However his condition deteriorated rapidly and he died. His cause of death was given as neutropenic sepsis and tee cell leukaemia.

The inquest heard May and a senior nurse had “jovial banter about the Rugby World Cup” on the day he was an outpatient and that he “felt fine” and there were no problems.

But observations were not made – a policy that has now changed along with patients being asked questions from a check list, the inquest was told.

Consultant haematologist Dr Hannah Hunter said May may have been very well up to an hour before the sepsis struck and he had eaten and watched TV with “no signs of sepsis” earlier.

Coroner Ian Arrow recorded a narrative conclusion.

He said: “The deceased was diagnosed with tee cell leukaemia and he underwent essential chemotherapy.

“He was discharged as an in-patient on 24th October 2019 and he attended hospital as an out-patient on Saturday October 26th.

“Clinical observations on his physical condition were not made at the time. There was a paucity of record keeping.

“On the balance of probabilities he was suffering from diarrhoea that Saturday. He had blood samples taken for testing that Saturday.

“On the balance of probabilities he was not spoken to about the blood test results that were obtained. He was not requested to return to hospital.

“He returned to the emergency department of the hospital on October 27th in extremis. He had developed neutropenic sepsis in a very short period of time and deteriorated and died in Derriford Hospital on the 27th October.”

The coroner noted that changes have since been made by the University Hospital Plymouth NHS Trust following May’s death.

After the hearing, May’s daughter Isabel said: “It is clear that our father was not reviewed properly the day before he died, nor were there proper records kept. Important indicators of infection were at best missed, at worst ignored.

“Indeed, his death has since led to a change of procedure for vulnerable cancer patients like him who require constant monitoring.

“We believe that our father should have been kept in for monitoring on the weekend that he died, and that may have saved his life.

“We hope that the changes that the hospital say they have now made mean that other families will not to go through what we have.

“As we heard, the system was not set up to protect those people like my father, who are stoic and positive despite being incredibly vulnerable and unwell.

“Our father was a brilliant journalist, writer and artist – he certainly had a lot more to do in his life and we are devastated at losing him.

“Derriford Hospital, as the Care Quality Commission says, needs improvement.”

Picture: N Chadwick/Geograph

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