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Family of trainee teacher receive compensation after undiagnosed hyponatraemia

Medical negligence lawyer settles case where the drop in sodium levels in the blood of a young woman was missed

Red blood cells

22 January 2015

The family of a young woman who died following undiagnosed hyponatraemia has received a six-figure sum of compensation following her death.  

The woman, a trainee teacher known only as Mrs T, was 33 years old when she died in January 2009.  She was married with one child. She was represented by medical negligence lawyer Sanja Strkljevic

At the end of 2008, Mrs T began to display unusual behaviour.  She reported having paranoid thoughts about her family members and work colleagues.  She suffered from insomnia and started to lose significant amounts of weight. 

She telephoned her parents in the early hours of the morning to tell them that she was wandering the streets.  

When she returned home she tried to remove her daughter from the house, and then called the police when her husband stopped her. An ambulance was called and she was taken to University College Hospital (UCH).

She was seen by a triage nurse and then by a Consultant in Accident and Emergency Medicine.  At the end of a 20 minute assessment the Consultant said that she was suffering from acute paranoia or a stress reaction and referred her for psychiatric assessment. 

Although her blood sugar level and temperature were checked when she arrived at hospital no further medical tests, such as a blood test, were thought necessary by the Consultant.

Mrs T had two psychiatric assessments, one by a psychiatric liaison nurse, and by a junior doctor soon after the referral was made.  She was referred for a further psychiatric assessment to be carried out by the community health liaison team.

By the time this assessment was carried out three hours later Mrs T was more rational, and was discharged home, to be followed up at home the next day. 

The next day Mrs T began to suffer from diarrhoea and vomiting. At around lunchtime, she complained to her parents who were at home with her, of feeling as though her body was swelling. She lay down to rest, but fell unconscious and suffered a fit. 

Emergency medical assistance arrived and attempts to resuscitate her were carried out at her home and at UCH.  

Blood tests carried out in the course of these attempts confirmed a very low blood sodium level (hyponatraemia). 

Despite the efforts of the ambulance and hospital staff Mrs T did not regain consciousness and she was pronounced dead.

At an inquest into Mrs T’s death the Coroner recorded that brain swelling associated with hyponatraemia and intermittent behavioural or psychiatric disturbance was the cause of death. 

Mrs T’s husband and parents contacted medical negligence lawyers Leigh Day to try to understand what happened to Mrs T and why she died. 

No mention of hyponatraemia had been made to Mrs T’s family, and no investigations had been carried out to
try and identify the underlying reason for her psychiatric disturbance.  

Their solicitor, Sanja Strkljevic from the medical negligence team at Leigh Day obtained expert evidence, which confirmed that Mrs T was likely to have been suffering from hyponatraemia when she first attended A&E.  

Ms Strkljevic claimed that if the proper diagnosis been made at that time, and appropriate treatment given, not only was she likely to have survived, but on the balance of probabilities she would not have sustained any brain damage.  

No admission of liability was made by UCH.

Medical negligence solicitor at Leigh Day Sanja Strkljevic commented: 

“This is a tragic case, where a young woman’s life was cut short by what we believe was an undiagnosed and untreated illness.  

“Mrs T’s family came to us to understand why she died and how she became so ill.  

“Hyponatraemia is a serious condition which in this case, was capable of being treated; if it had been Mrs T would have been left with no serious or lasting damage.  

“The case also highlights the importance of communication between hospital staff and patients and their families."

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