The baby who refused to die

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Key points

• Baby Charlotte has some sight and can hear clapping

• Parents returning to court in attempt to overturn resuscitation ruling

• Relations between parents and hospital staff remain difficult

Key quote

"The worrying aspect of this case is that, having been told there was no prospect of Charlotte getting better, there now seems to be some evidence that she is." - Richard Stein, solicitor

Story in full A PREMATURE baby, expected to die before her first birthday and left to her fate by hospital doctors, is getting better, it was claimed yesterday.

The parents of Charlotte Wyatt are now going back to court to try to overturn a judge’s ruling that doctors had the right not to resuscitate the child on the grounds that she was brain-damaged and doing so would simply prolong her suffering.

Since the decision was taken at an emotional High Court hearing in autumn last year, sources at the hospital have reportedly confirmed that her breathing has become stronger and that she is no longer totally dependent on an oxygen supply.

The child’s family also claim that Charlotte, who weighed just 1lb and measured the length of a ballpoint pen when she was born three months prematurely in a Plymouth hospital, now has some sight and can hear clapping, although this has not been confirmed by the hospital.

Yesterday, an eminent Scots authority on law and medical ethics, Professor Sheila McLean, said that if the child’s condition had improved "significantly", there was no reason why the "do not resuscitate" ruling should not be overturned.

Doctors at St Mary’s Hospital resuscitated Charlotte three times prior to the court hearing, when they argued that a fourth resuscitation attempt would be "purposeless and intolerable".

However, at a court hearing on Friday this week, lawyers for her parents, Darren, 33, and Debbie Wyatt, 23, will argue that medical evidence relating to Charlotte’s improved state of health means doctors should transfer her to a ventilator if she stops breathing again.

Richard Stein, of London-based solicitors Leigh, Day and Co, said: "Given the possibility that there is a change in Charlotte’s condition, it is important that all the information is put before the court before any life-or-death decisions about treatment are made.

"The worrying aspect of this case is that, having been told there was no prospect of Charlotte getting better, there now seems to be some evidence that she is. If everyone agrees that there is a significant change in Charlotte’s condition, then the judgment will need to be reviewed."

A friend of the Wyatt family said that Charlotte’s improvement had been so marked over the past few months that there are hopes she could now survive. Carol Glass said: "Doctors said Charlotte would not live to see her first birthday and that was months ago.

"Charlotte should not have this ‘do not resuscitate order’ left hanging over her. Her parents, Darren and Debbie, want her to be treated and are hoping that one day she will be able to go home with them. She could now live on with the right treatment."

Relations between the child’s parents and the hospital remain tense, with her father only permitted to visit his daughter when escorted by a security guard. The child has been confined to an oxygen box since she was born in October 2003, three months premature after just 26 weeks in the womb.

A High Court judge ruled on 7 October, 2004, just before Charlotte’s birthday, that any further "aggressive" treatment, even if necessary to prolong Charlotte’s life, was not "in her best interests".

The judge had heard from paediatric experts that the baby had serious brain, lung and kidney damage, was fed through a tube, needed a constant supply of oxygen and was incapable of voluntary movement or response.

Prof McLean, an internationally respected expert in law and medical ethics at Glasgow University, said the courts may well reverse the decision, but this would depend on how much better Charlotte had become.

"In these cases, the court will always try and decide what is in the best interests of the child, and obviously the information the court received first time round suggested that to continually resuscitate her was not in her best interests," she said.

"If there has in fact been a significant improvement, then it wouldn’t be unrealistic to think the court might decide in a different way, because if the child is going to have some kind of quality of life and the treatment is not going to be unbearable or terribly painful for her, then the normal position of the court would be that the treatment should continue.

"That’s certainly what I would expect them to say - if the new evidence is borne out that there is some kind of improvement in her condition."

Prof McLean added: "The court reached its decision first time round based on evidence which they had no option but to believe, and that is what I think people will now pick up on, that the doctors may have got it wrong."

A spokeswoman for Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust said last night: "Charlotte is alive and continues to be cared for by dedicated staff at St Mary’s Hospital.

"The fact that she is still alive and is to some extent showing some limited signs of improvement is a tribute to the skill and expertise of the nursing and medical staff who have delivered such a high level of support to her over the months.

"However, she remains in a critical condition and is not growing. Thus the sad fact is that the staff caring for her still believe that any slight improvement does not change the seriousness of her underlying condition.

"There is no independent evidence of the extent of the improvement in Charlotte’s underlying condition."

She added: "Despite the best efforts of staff, it is unfortunate the relations between the staff and Mr and Mrs Wyatt remain difficult."