An alcoholic anaesthetist who botched an emergency caesarean operation leaving a young British mother dead has been sentenced to three years in prison and banned from practising medicine.
Helga Wauters, 51, was found guilty of manslaughter after pushing a breathing tube into 28-year-old Xynthia Hawke’s oesophagus instead of her windpipe. Even after Hawke cried out in pain, vomited, turned blue and went into cardiac arrest, the anaesthetist, who admitted she had an alcohol problem and had been drinking since early morning on the day of the operation, failed to react.
Hawke’s baby boy was born healthy on 26 September 2014, but she was left in an irreversible coma and died four days later. She never saw her child.
Wauters was also ordered to pay almost €1.4m (£1.3m) in damages to the victim’s family: Hawke’s son; the baby’s father and her partner, Yannick Balthazar; her sister, Iris; and her parents, Clare and Fraser Hawke, from Somerset.
After the sentence was announced on Thursday, Balthazar, 39, who lives near Biarritz in the French Pyrenees, said he was relieved that the court had imposed the maximum sentence on Wauters. “Justice has set an example for this kind of doctor, who in my eyes is not a doctor, in going all the way and sentencing her to three years in prison and banning her from practising, thus showing that she is not competent,” he said.
Last month, a court in Pau heard that Wauters, a Belgian citizen and a reportedly “brilliant” medical student, had previously lost two hospital jobs because of her drinking, and had spent several periods in rehab.
She had been working at the private clinic in Orthez, south-west France for only two weeks, but was about to be dismissed because of reports she was drinking, bringing plastic bottles filled with a mix of vodka and water to work.
After Wauters was called to the clinic to treat Hawke, a colleague noticed while they were scrubbing up that her breath smelled of alcohol, the court was told. Police later found 14 empty vodka bottles at Wauters’ flat. She told investigators she need to drink before work to “stop her hands trembling”.
Wauters admitted “part of the responsibility” for the botched operation but blamed a faulty ventilator in the operating theatre for Hawke’s death. Experts who examined the machine afterwards reported that it was in perfect working order.
During the hearing, Wauters exercised her right to silence, reading a declaration saying that she would “regret this tragedy all my life” but said she did not “merit being sent back to prison”, having spent two months on remand in 2014. She asked to be able to continue practising in the future.
The public prosecutor had requested the maximum three-year sentence and a definitive ban. On Thursday, the three judges agreed.
In an emotional statement at the October trial, Hawke’s sister, Iris, said her death had devastated their family and they had waited six years for justice. “Xynthia’s death should never have happened. I miss her every day of my life. Xynthia’s life was put in the hands of Helga Wauters, who made the decision to come to work drunk … this decision killed my sister that night,” she told the court.