A French court on Thursday jailed an alcoholic Belgian anaesthetist for three years over the death of a British woman during an emergency Caesarean section.
Helga Wauters, 51, was found guilty of manslaughter over the 2014 death of Xynthia Hawke, who died four days after a chaotic procedure that starved her brain of oxygen, sending her into cardiac arrest.
Wauters was also banned from practising medicine.
Hawke had passed her due date when she was admitted to the maternity ward of Orthez hospital near the southwestern city of Pau on September 26, 2014.
The Somerset native, who was living in France, never saw her son who was delivered safe and sound.
The investigation showed that Wauters, who was less than two weeks into the job, inserted a ventilation tube into Hawke’s food pipe instead of her windpipe before the Caesarean.
When Hawke’s oxygen levels plummeted Wauters used an oxygen mask instead of a ventilator to try revive her because she did not know how to work the ventilator, witnesses said.
– Like ‘Baghdad’ –
Wauters was not in court in Pau for the ruling. The court imposed the maximum sentence for her crime.
She admitted starting the fateful day with a mix of vodka and water, “like every day”, to stop her hands trembling.
“I recognise now that my addiction was incompatible with my job,” Wauters told the court in October, adding that “I will regret this death my entire life.”
But she denied being solely responsible for Hawke’s death, arguing that other staff were also to blame and claiming that the ventilator was not working — a claim later shown to be false.
Wauters had given Hawke an epidural local anaesthetic earlier in the day.
During the birth, complications arose, requiring an emergency C-section.
When Wauters returned to the maternity ward after being called in to administer a general anaesthetic, she had alcohol on her breath, according to witnesses.
Hawke woke up during the operation and began vomiting and shouting “it hurts” before ripping out her breathing tubes.
A nurse on duty described the scene as being like a war zone.
“It was Baghdad,” she said.
The state prosecutor told the court the operation amounted to “carnage”.
– Family ‘relieved’ –
Wauters told investigators she had had a “glass of rose” wine with friends before returning to the hospital.
During a psychiatric evaluation, she denied having been drunk at the time, claiming she was “70 percent operational” and had only a “share of the blame.”
Police found 14 bottles of vodka at her home.
The court on Thursday ordered her to pay nearly 1.4 million euros ($1.65 million) in damages to Hawke’s son, now aged six, her partner Yannick Balthazar, her parents Clare and Fraser Hawke and her sister Iris.
“Justice has set an example for this type of doctor who, in my eyes, is not a doctor,” said Balthazar, who was present for the ruling.
Hawke’s sister Iris said that “we are relieved that justice has prevailed, and that the judge gave the maximum prison sentence”.
She said the ban on Wauters practising medicine was particularly welcome as “nobody else should have to go through the trauma that we had to”.
Wauters, whose father was a gynaecologist, moved to France for work after being fired from two Belgian hospitals — once in 2013 and another in 2014 — for being drunk on the job.
Court documents showed the doctor, who had shone as a medical student but become depressed after relationship problems, had been in and out of rehab for years.
A recruitment agency hired her on behalf of a clinic that provided staff to Orthez hospital but did not check her credentials, the investigation revealed.