Suffer little children...

Baby death panel dismisses claim

Two babies, both terminally ill, suffer violent and distressing body spasms (known as agonal gasping) in the last moments of their short lives. What would you expect a doctor to do?

Dr Michael Munro of Aberdeen Maternity Hospital gave the children a massive dose of Pancuronium, with the full approval of the parents, which relieved the agonising spasms but also hastened their deaths. A humane response, you might think, providing these poor children and their parents some dignity and peace as the end approached.

But it took a medical panel to decide that Dr Munro had not 'acted inappropriately' and it is still to decide whether 'Dr Munro's actions have impaired his fitness to practice'.

In yesterday's Times Melanie Reid wrote this about the case:
The breathing tube was removed and a course of morphine was begun. The babies began to struggle to breathe, a normal part of the dying process (emphasis mine) known as agonal gasping. Were we Victorians, we would know this. These days, however, how many of us are well versed in the dying process? And how many of us imagine we could calmly nurse our child as it gasped its way to death, without crying out for succour?

Well, I suspect I've witnessed more deaths than Ms Reid and she's flat wrong about agonal gasping. Reflex gasping is common (occurring after death) and there is sometimes a short period of 'gasping respiration' prior to death, but it is not normal. These babies might have suffered this distressing breathing pattern (which results in much more pronounced spasms in young babies than in adults) for several minutes or even longer. To suggest that what needed to be done was the instruction of the parents in the 'realities of death' is, frankly, crass.

My brother suffered agonal gasping (together with some other distressing behaviour) during his last moments. What should have been a peaceful slipping away at the end of a terminal illness was, instead, a horrific and traumatic spectacle for all concerned. I wish there had been a doctor there willing to ease his ending. How could it have been anything but the right thing to do?

UPDATE: Wednesday, 11/07/07.  I'm delighted to see that Dr Munroe was cleared at his 'fitness to practice' hearing earlier today and is now free to resume his post.