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Woman in intensive care bringing case against hospital over ‘unwarranted’ symphysiotomy

Noreen Burns, 83, was subjected to a symphysiotomy after her child was born by Caesarean Section in 1959.

Image: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Archive

AN ELDERLY WOMAN who is critically ill in hospital has asked for an early trial date so she can bring a case against the National Maternity Hospital.

The High Court heard an application today to expedite proceedings which relate to a symphysiotomy that was carried out over 50 years ago.

Noreen Burns, 83, underwent the procedure in September 1959 after her child was born by Caesarean Section.

Known as ‘on the way out’ symphysiotomies, the operations have been deemed unwarranted and unjustified in a previous court case and, more recently, by the government.

Ms Burns began proceedings in February 2012 but her legal team asked Justice Mary Irvine for a hearing date for as soon as possible because she has fallen into a critical condition at Naas Hospital over the past few days.

She is currently intubated and ventilated at the ICU in the Kildare hospital. She is experiencing problems in her chest, with doctors stating that there is an underlying problem that they cannot identify.

Julie O’Donnell, solicitor for Ms Burns, told TheJournal.ie outside the courtroom that she is “disappointed” and “surprised” that a speedy trial has not been facilitated by the hospital.

She also noted that the family and legal team were “surprised” at its decision to oppose the application.

In his opening address to the judge, barrister Dr Ciarán Craven read from a letter sent by the hospital’s legal team, outlining its plans to oppose an early date and to look for costs from the plaintiff.

He told the court that he wants to narrow its case to one point – arguing on the basis that it was negligent and unnecessary for the procedure to be carried out.

Judge Mary Irvine told him to put his concessions into writing for the defendant immediately.

She also gave the hospital seven days to source an expert report in order for the trial to go ahead. She noted her surprise that one was not readily available on the point being argued.

Ms Burns’ case bears similarities to that of Olivia Kearney, who was awarded €325,000 by the Supreme Court in damages for the pain and discomfort caused by an unnecessary and unjustified symphysiotomy in Our Lady’s Hospital Drogheda in 1969.

The initial award given by the High Court was €450,000 but that was reduced to €325,000 on appeal.

Symphysiotomy is a childbirth operation which involves breaking the pelvis and leaving it permanently widened. It was favoured by some doctors over Caesarean Sections in Ireland until 1984, long after it was discontinued in other jurisdictions.

Earlier this month, the government announced an ex-gratia redress scheme for the over 300 women who are still alive today who underwent these surgeries.

Although some survivors have indicated their satisfaction with the compensation offers (between €50,000 and €150,000 with no admission of liability), others have rejected it, calling for a full inquiry into the practice and an individual assessment of injuries.

Ms Burns’ case will be up for mention again on Tuesday, 15 July with a view to setting a trial date for later this month.

“We will find a date if somebody is sufficiently ill,” she added.

However, Justice Irvine added that she was not indicating by this remark that she will definitely fix a date.

Dr Craven told the court he hoped his client would be communicative by that point but warned she would not be “well enough” to come to court.

Read: Survivors of Symphysiotomy reject €34 million redress scheme

More: Symphysiotomy couple want to find their child’s burial place

Related: ‘I was just 27 and I was butchered’: Symphysiotomy survivors in their own words

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