Anna White was 15 when medical negligence left her facing a lifetime stuck inside her body, unable to walk or talk, and communicating only by blinking at letters on a Perspex board.
White sustained a major brain injury in 2011 during what should have been routine appendix surgery at Wigan’s Royal Albert Edward infirmary. While her intellectual capacity was unimpaired by the injury, Anna was left with profound physical disabilities.
Once a sporty, outgoing teenager who planned to go to college and become a midwife, White instead needed round-the-clock care. Her mother, Donna White, gave up her cleaning job to look after White full time. “It’s like having a newborn baby,” Donna White told the Guardian in 2015. “Everything a newborn baby needs, that’s what I do.”
But her daughter, now 21, is defying the expectations of her doctors and making an extraordinary recovery.
Following two years of specialist private care, White has begun to perform simple, everyday tasks such as brushing her teeth, combing her hair, eating and even putting on makeup. She can speak and stand for brief periods unaided, and is hopeful she may one day be able to walk again.
The Whites credit her recovery to twice-weekly speech and language therapy, intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy – a treatment package that would not have been available to her on the NHS.
Her care has been paid for out of interim payments from a settlement with Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS foundation trust after a six-year legal battle. The trust admitted liability for White’s injuries in 2015, but has only recently settled the case in full for an undisclosed sum.
“I’m very proud of my recovery,” White said from her home in Wigan. “I didn’t expect to recover as much, people told me I wouldn’t.”
For the first time in more than six years, she is making plans for the future, including a trip to Los Angeles. “I want to go on holiday, I’ve never been on a plane,” she said. White hopes to move into her own home and ultimately live an independent life.
White’s appendectomy in September 2011 appeared to go well, but when she was in recovery, she had a cardiac arrest and a respiratory arrest. It took five months for the trust to admit to the Whites that a cannula used to deliver anaesthetic during the procedure had not been flushed out.
When the same cannula was used to administer fluids after the surgery, an additional anaesthetic dose was inadvertently delivered, which stopped her heart and starved her brain of oxygen. White was revived in time to save her life, but left with life-changing brain damage.
In 2015, Donna White told the Guardian that the worst thing about her daughter’s injuries was that she would not hear her voice again. “Even if it’s just telling me off for something or disapproving of something. Just her voice,” she had said. But contrary to medical expectations, White’s voice has returned, and Donna White’s “stubborn, determined, argumentative” daughter is now able to argue with her once again.
“She’s said a lot of things: ‘happy Mother’s Day’, ‘happy Christmas’, she shouted at the dogs and they both came in one by one. It’s everything. Even when she has stropped at me,” her mother said.
Dr James Overell, a consultant neurologist at Queen Elizabeth University hospital in Glasgow, acted as an expert witness in White’s case against the trust. “When I first met Anna in 2015, it had already been three or four years since her original injury. We felt it would be unlikely that she would improve at all,” he said.
“Usually, neurological recovery after this kind of injury would take two or three years and then reach a static rate. But she has substantially improved in the fifth and sixth year after her injury and continued to improve. That is quite unusual.”
The team treating White hope she will continue to make progress, but stress that her physical capacity will always be limited. She will need physiotherapy for the rest of her life in order to maintain the level of improvement she has already reached.
“She’s gained a lot of functional independence: she’s able to feed herself and she can communicate. She’s going to have a better quality of life,” Overell said. “But I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to work or live independently. She’s always going to be severely disabled. She’s always going to need a lot of care.”
As well as providing for her therapy, White’s compensation gives her mother peace of mind that her daughter will be cared for even when she herself gets older. “I know now she’s secure for the rest of her life and I’ll die peacefully,” she said. White’s recovery has meant her mother can focus on her own future: she hopes to put her experience caring for daughter to good use and train as an occupational therapist.
Lauren Tully, a clinical negligence specialist at the law firm Slater and Gordon, which represented the family, said: “Anna was the innocent victim of a devastating and avoidable mistake, and the priority here was to make sure that she would be looked after, whatever happens.
“While her progress so far and her prognosis are better than any of us could have hoped for, she may still need care for the rest of her life. No one knows what the future holds, but I very much hope that it will see Anna’s continued improvement, and I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.”