The Dutch Health Inspectorate confirmed this week that it is to open a “further investigation” into the case of Adrienne Cullen, the 58-year-old Limerick woman who died of cervical cancer last New Year’s Eve as a result of medical negligence by a university hospital in the Netherlands.
Ms Cullen, who got the highest ever award for pain and suffering in a Dutch medical negligence case after she developed terminal cancer because of a missing test diagnosis, wanted greater transparency in the testing regime and called at the time of her half a million euro award for gagging clauses to be outlawed.
In a letter to Ms Cullen’s widower, Peter Cluskey, the inspectorate said the decision had been taken at a meeting of its own experts on July 23 “to further investigate this case”.
It said the investigation would begin immediately and continue through August and September.
The decision has been taken on foot of the inspectorate’s assessment of an internal report by the hospital, UMC (University Medical Centre) Utrecht, in May, which showed that there had been not one but two opportunities to save Ms Cullen’s life by diagnosing what was then early-stage cancer.
In one case, the results of a tissue sample were lost in 2011 before they reached her doctor. In the second case, a pathologist – and a pathology technician – misread a tissue sample that 11 of his peers in other Dutch hospitals were subsequently all able to analyse as cancerous.
Mr Cluskey said he welcomed the investigation because he hoped it would have an independence that the May report – where the hospital essentially investigated itself – did not have, and could not possibly have had.
“I am not alone in the view that the UMC Utrecht report was unbalanced. It was unbalanced because while the majority of the failings it uncovered were in the Pathology Department, the bulk of its focus seemed, inexplicably, to have been on what the Gynaecology Department could have done better. Ironically, Adrienne’s two doctors in gynaecology were the only ones who tried to help and support her.”
And when the missing test was found, the hospital offered “no apology or explanation” for the error, Ms Cullen said at the time.
She sued the hospital for medical negligence and was awarded €545,000, with €350,000 of the award listed as a settlement for pain and suffering.
The 58-year-old University College Cork Sociology and Philosophy described the parallels between her own story and that of fellow Limerick women’s health campaigner Vicky Phelan as “striking and deeply disturbing”.
Speaking with the Limerick Post shortly before her death and after being conferred with an honorary doctorate in laws at UCC, Ms Cullen – a former Salesians student who lived in Castletroy and later on the Ennis Road – said that she is determined to have a no-gagging clause policy enshrined in EU law.
“There has to be an absolute ban in the EU on using confidentiality agreements which are gagging clauses between patients and their hospitals because they do not belong there,” she said.
Ms Cullen, who was a respected journalist, said that the lack of any apology or explanation from the hospital added to her suffering.
“It was the hospital that put up a wall of silence. They pulled down the shutters and tried to minimise what happened.
“Myself and my husband were traumatised by that. We couldn’t believe it,” she said.