Nigeria: How Belgian Hospital 'Mistakenly' Amputated Cervix, Paralysed Two Nigerian Women

In a bid to operate the fibroids, the doctor who carried out the surgery, erroneously amputated her cervix, making her incapable of carrying a pregnancy.

Two Nigerian women, Ajima Ogbole-Spittael and Susan Ogbole, have raised alarm over the medical injustice they suffered at the hands of Belgian doctors, which led to the loss of cervix and paralysis for the women.

Mrs Ogbole-Spittael is married to a Belgian and based in Belgium, while her sister-in-law, Mrs Ogbole, travelled to Belgium for surrogacy.

Narrating their ordeal via a zoom meeting on Tuesday, Mrs Ogbole-Spittael, 35, said her experience started in 2017 when she and her husband were trying to conceive and she was diagnosed with multiple fibroids at Az Sint-Jan Bruges, Belgium.

In a bid to remove the fibroids, the doctor ,who carried out the surgery, erroneously amputated her cervix, making her incapable of carrying a pregnancy.

"In 2017 my husband and I wanted to start a family and went for a check-up to a gynaecologist. He noted I had multiple fibroids and advised my best option would be a myomectomy before we began to attempt trying to get pregnant. As a result, I was referred to a doctor in AZ Sint-Jan hospital to undergo a myomectomy.

"The objective of the procedure was to remove fibroids; it was not to remove my cervix. However, I came out of the hospital without my cervix. A doctor who operated on me to remove fibroids in my womb, mistakenly amputated my cervix," Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said.

Although the removal of the fibroids from her womb was successful - about 13 of the growths were removed - Mrs Ogbole-Spittael left the hospital without a cervix.

Hospital admits error

Initially, Az Sint-Jan Bruges, through its insurer, refused to admit that there was a medical error during the surgery.

In a letter dated October 23, 2018, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, the insurer said the hospital has no liability in Mrs Ogbole-Spittael's case, saying "the difference between a fibroid and cervix tissue was very difficult."

"As a civil liability insurer, we can only intervene if our insured committed a medical mistake. A medical mistake is a culpable shortcoming of the healthcare personnel, who didn't correctly execute a certain prescribed action or put insufficient effort to prevent the damage," the insurance company, Ethias wrote.

"Furthermore, it's important to make a difference between a mistake and a complication. A medical surgery can be accompanied by unintended consequences. This doesn't mean that the healthcare person made a mistake. For every surgery, there is a small or high chance of complications.

"During the surgery of 2 November 2017 it was very difficult to differentiate fibroids from the cervix. The difference between a fibroid and cervix tissue is very difficult on a macroscopical level. Considered all factors this concerns a medical complication. It concerns a uterus with multiple myomas in which it's technically very difficult to remove due to the volume of all fibroids.

"We need to conclude that this is a very regrettable incident for which nobody is responsible. Given the circumstances, we can't intervene in the damage."

Succour, however, came when the hospital, in 2019, admitted the medical error after several months and with volumes of expert medical analyses and reports.

PREMIUM TIMES obtained another letter dated January 22, 2019, where Pedro Vanvoorden, a representative of Ethias insurance company, replied to Mrs Ogbole-Spittael's complaint after surgery from February 8, 2018.

"We refer to the above-mentioned claim. In the meantime, we gained additional advice from a specialist gynaecologist. Based on this advice we are willing to accept the liability of Dr VAN DE VIJVER.

"It's now a question of estimating your damage. Did you inform your legal assistance insurer? Are they willing to provide you legal assistance with creating a specific and a calculated claim?" the letter said.

Following admittance of error, the hospital accepted responsibility and its insurer was to negotiate compensation with Mrs Ogbole-Spittael and her husband, William Spittael.

The joy of the hospital admitting their error was short-lived when, Ethias, which was meant to work out a compensation package with Mrs Ogbole-Spittael, was not forthcoming as no compensation has been paid to date.

"It quickly became clear that there is a total absence of good faith on the side of both the insurance and the hospital, as the former continued to take instructions from the latter," the victim said.

She added that her lawsuit against the hospital, Az Sint-Jan Bruges, Belgium, is still ongoing.

Twice bitten

Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said following the erroneous amputation of her cervix, gynaecologists told her she could no longer get pregnant.

"I was told I couldn't get pregnant naturally or artificially due to the amputation of my cervix and that our best option to become parents was via surrogacy."

Accepting the offer of surrogacy, Mrs Ogbole-Spittael consulted with members of her family, with her sister-in-law, Susan Ogbole, accepting to carry a child for her.

"Susan, a mother of two, who happens to be my sister-in-law married to my younger brother, offered to be our surrogate of which we agreed. The pregnancy went smoothly from embryo transfer to delivery," she said.

Narrating her experience, Mrs Ogbole said she had a healthy pregnancy, which was the same as her two previous pregnancies and walked to the hospital herself on the scheduled day of delivery - same Az Sint-Jan Bruges - where her sister-in-law had her cervix amputated.

Despite walking to the hospital on her own for delivery on October 15, 2020, Mrs Ogbole was paralysed in the process of the cesarean operation and has remained at the hospital to date, unable to walk or use her legs.

Answering a question on why the family chose the hospital the second time, Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said it was the closest to them and other professionals referred them to the hospital.

"We were not expecting another mistake, also, the medical doctor that attended to me first was very remorseful of the outcome and called me personally to apologise. We didn't think another mistake could occur.

"Susan opted for a planned C-section, which took place on 15th of October 2020. Susan went into hospital as a full able-bodied woman. She was given an epidural during labour. As a result, Susan is now paralyzed and is still in hospital since giving birth to our baby," Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said.

Mrs Ogbole said she objected to being given the epidural but the doctors insisted it was the best for her.

"I felt so much pain when they gave the epidural and after the session, I felt much more pains. I remember telling the midwife of the pains and she said it meant the epidural was good and successful.

"It was when I attempted to get up that I observed I felt nothing on my legs, I could not stand. Since then, I have been paralyzed and here at the hospital," she said.

Further agony

Although Mrs Ogbole was delivered of a healthy baby girl for the Spittael couple, she has remained in a wheelchair in the last five months.

The Ogbole family said despite the medical injustice done to them by the Belgian hospital, they have refused to acknowledge the error but keep sending hospital bills to the family.

For Mrs Ogbole, who had her two children in Nigeria, she said the incident is taking a toll on them as she has not been able to return to her family.

A.J Ogbole, her husband and the younger brother to Mrs Ogbole-Spittael, also explained how he and his children are suffering from the hardship brought on the family through medical negligence.

"The kids are staying with my mom, this is the time they need all the care and love they can get from their parents but that is not happening due to what is happening.

Mr Ogbole said the children, aged three and five, are psychologically affected by the absence of their mum and could feel that something is off in the family.

Despite getting a surrogate to bear a child for them, Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said she is yet to be recognised as the legal mother of the baby, even when her husband has been registered as the father.

She said if Mrs Ogbole leaves Belgium by October without the family completing the legal process, her ability to be the full legal mother of her child would be denied.

Belgian hospital, government silent

Williams Spittael, Ajima's Belgian husband, said all attempts to get the Belgian authority to wade into the matter have been unsuccessful.

"We hired lawyers for both cases to fight for the injustice done to Ajima and Susan, especially Susan that is still lying on the hospital bed."

Mr Spittael said they have written to the hospital and the Ministry of Justice in Belgium but are yet to get any response over the "questionable administration" of epidural which has paralysed Mrs Ogbole.

"We have reported this two individuals yet related issues to the hospital, Ajima's in 2018 and Susan's October 2020. The hospital is yet to accept responsibility for Susan's case and referred her to an orthopaedic to evaluate a gynaecological/anesthesiologic issue.

"My family has been through serious agony, it has become clear that the hospital, AZ Sint-Jan Bruges, acting through their insurance, Ethias, has abandoned good faith and chosen the unholy path of frustrating an already agonizing family through unnecessary threats of Court actions," he said.

Mr Spittael said rather than reply to the letters of medical errors, the hospital threatened to drag the case in court and eventually force the family to back out.

"As if the injustice against us by AZ Sint-Jan Bruges was insufficient, on 23rd March 2021, we received a most intimidating letter from them threatening to take us to court for daring to speak out about the way they are treating us inhumanly.

"The threat and intimidation have only strengthened our resolve to elevate this matter as the public interest matter that it actually is. It cannot be that trusted medical personnel would constitute themselves into an untouchable cult and cannot be held accountable for their actions," Mrs Spittael said.

The Ogbole family has also written to the Nigerian Embassy in Belgium and the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) over the matter. They say they are awaiting responses from the agencies.

Adbulrahmon Balogun, the spokesperson to the Director-General, Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM), has, however, told PREMIUM TIMES that the commission cannot wade into the matter.

"Any matter in court, we don't dabble into it. They have gone to court, they have done the right thing, so what else can we do? We cannot adjudicate on a matter before the court of law," he said.

Mr Balogun said although the commission is aware of the matter, it is yet to receive any petition from the victims.

AZ Sint-Jan Bruges did not respond to enquiries by PREMIUM TIMES on the matter.

Demands

Listing their demands, the Ogbole family said they want an acceptance of medical errors in the case of Susan Ogbole who has been paralysed since October 2020 and still at the hospital.

The family also wants a letter of unreserved apology in three national dailies in Belgium by AZ Sint-Jan Bruges and for the hospital to take financial responsibility for all of Mrs Ogbole's treatments.

They also want the Belgian authorities "to consider a bill to grant a humanitarian stay to Susan and patients' stay in Susan's situation."

"This allows me to adopt my child. It is humanly inconceivable to render me incapable of carrying a pregnancy yet take away my ability to be the mother of my child born through surrogacy," Mrs Ogbole-Spittael said.

"AZ Sint-Jan should immediately and genuinely return to the negotiating table with our multidisciplinary experts to agree on a fair settlement for the damage done to our lives taking into consideration that my ability to carry my pregnancy has been taken away through their medical error and Susan paralysed ," she added.

The family also wants the Belgian authority to consider legislation that sets up an independent commission that adjudicates in matters where settlement impasse exists between patients and hospitals / insurance companies.

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