For five years the McGinley family of Strabane have sought answers as to how their mother’s bones were broken after she died and they say they have “had doors slammed” in their faces. This week as they mark the fifth anniversary of the death of their mother, Maureen McGinley’s family have vowed to carry on for as many more years as necessary to discover the truth. The Journal tells their story.
Seventy eight year-old Maureen McGinley died of natural causes at Altnagelvin Hospital on January 3, 2007.
The mother of six died of pneumonia at Ward 20, Altnagelvin.
Ten weeks after her death the family were informed by Health Trust officials that their mother had sustained 34 rib fractures.
According to a post mortem report, 32 of these occurred after her death. She had also suffered the indignity of a fracture to the hyoid bone in her throat.
At no stage was resuscitation attempted on Mrs McGinley so this was never a factor.
The family said they were “shocked and horrified” when they heard the news initially. Little has been done to modify those feelings since.
“What made it worse,” said her son Martin McGinley, “was the delay in them telling us. We were still grieving for our mother and this was a massive blow.”
It also meant the family were faced with a litany of unanswered questions.
“The first was, if the Trust knew about the factures for ten weeks, why the delay in informing the family?
“We also asked why a post mortem was conducted at all. My mother died from natural causes - if there was nothing suspicious why conduct a post-mortem?”
These questions have never been fully answered by the Trust, says Mr. McGinley.
“The Trust told us a post mortem is carried out on anyone who passes away within 72 hours of admission to hospital. My mother had been in their care for 98 hours.”
Hospital notes made by a mortuary attendant, seen by the ‘Journal’ ,state: “Due to a change of circumstances Undertaker informed that the deceased was for post mortem.” That note was made at 10.30 on January 4. These questions were “brushed aside”, said Mr. McGinley.
In their quest for answers, the family demanded a public inquiry and won the unanimous support of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Health Committee. The then-Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, initially backed the idea of a full idependent inquiry only to withdraw that support within one week.
“We got the feeling he just said that to get us out the door and that was us forgotten,” said the McGinley family spokesman.
“It is like being on a roundabout as one agency refers us to another - but we are not going to go away.”
As Mrs. McGinley’s children have campaigned tirelessly for answers, the public have shown their support. In excess of 18,000 supporters signed their petition demanding an inquiry.
The issue was subject to a full Assembly debate on June 24, 2008, and while the McGinleys had much cross-party support. Minister McGimpsey referred the family instead to the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Northern Ireland Ombudsman.
“But that doesn’t put anyone in the witness box, which is the only way we are going to get answers,” said Martin.
In the last five years, the family have taken their battle for answers to the Justice Minister in 2008 only to be refused any “further review”.
The political situation regarding the devolution of policing and justice powers ensured that the family’s queries were subject to political and jurisdictional debates.
“At every stage it seems as if our concerns are the least important matter,” said Martin McGinley.
“The most infuriating thing is that someone within the walls of Altnagelvin knows what happened to mammy.”
Altnagelvin Hospital repeatedly deny the injuries took place on hospital grounds.
However a number of inconsistencies persist.
Coroner John Lecky wrote to the family solicitor John Fahy stating that the investigating PSNI officer, “informed my office that the body had not been washed...as death had been anticipated.”
This contradicts a statement from a medical staff member on duty.
In a written statement seen by the ‘Derry Journal’ one staff nurse, with responsibility for preparing the late Mrs. McGinley’s remains for transportation to the morgue, reported she had already been washed and some padding put in place.
The Trust denied that this ever took place.
In a ‘Critical incident review,’ dated March 2007, the Trust suggest the injuries may have been caused by strapping Mrs McGinley’s remains to a stretcher.
It stated: “Often undertakers transport a body on a stretcher with the body secured by means of adjustable straps. It is possible that isfthe strap across the chest had been applied tightly, it could cause these injuries.”
In response to that claim the undertaker responsible for transporting Mrs. McGinley to Belfast for her autopsy issued a statement stressing that they “are completely satisfied that no inappropriate handling of the body occurred”.
Martin McGinley has since spoken to several members of staff on duty at the hospital when his mother died. The family have been given two different accounts of how the injuries were sustained.
Firstly in 2009 the McGinleys were instructed that an “accidental fall” had occurred, causing the injuries.
Mr. McGinley said: “I was told two porters were ‘racing’ through the tunnel when mammy’s body fell from the trolley.
“Then in 2011 we heard that a porter had placed boxes on top of my mother as she was being moved. The staff member said the bed then collapsed to the floor causing the fractures. Neither of these sources will stand over what they said, so we still just don’t know and that is the worst part.
“In the darker moments you wonder are these accounts being put out there to confuse us? I know work is hard to come by and these people want to keep their jobs. Anyone we’ve spoken to has told us they’ve been warned by the Trust not to speak to us. I have to ask - is there no realistic protection for whistle blowers in the Health Service?”
The McGinley family hired the services of expert pathologist Dr. Christopher Milroy to review the case. The renowned expert concluded: “I have never seen so many rib fractures caused by the ordinary movement of a body, therefore the handling of the body was unusual” and he added that “normal post mortem procedures would not account for the fractures” which would “not be expected from normal handling of a body after death, including transportation to another mortuary”.
Dr. Milroy added: “It has been suggested that placing straps around the body possibly with the arms crossed on the front of the body [could have caused fractures].
“Whilst one could envisage a process of compression being produced in this way, the number of fractures in this case would again suggest that normal post-mortem procedures would not account for the fractures.”
The family remain perplexed about how the injuries were sustained.
Martin insisted: “They (Altnagelvin Hospital) have never conducted a thorough investigation. We believe they are hiding something and we want to know how she received these injuries and again we are promising not to rest until we get the answers. We are mourning every day, the thoughts that go through your head are unreal. We just want answers. My mother died inside the walls of that hospital, those injuries occured there and that’s where the answers lie. The only way we will get those answers is through a public inquiry.”
The Western Health Trust were asked to comment on the matter but declined to do so.