A Belgian medic has been jailed for killing a screaming British mother during a Caesarean section by mistakenly shoving a tube down her oesophagus while drunk.
Helga Wauters, 51, was handed three years in jail by French judges on Thursday over the death of Xynthia Hawke who underwent the emergency operation.
Wauters was also banned from practising after being charged with manslaughter over the death of Hawke, who was overdue when admitted to the maternity ward of Orthez hospital near the southwestern city of Pau on September 26, 2014.
Hawke, who was 28, died of cardiac arrest four days after a chaotic C-section that starved her brain of oxygen. Her baby boy survived.
Wauters was not in court for the ruling on Thursday.
Expat Xynthia Hawke, 28, from Somerset, (pictured, left, in an undated social media photo); and Helga Wauters, 51, (right, at the court in Pau on October 8)
The late Xynthia Hawke’s partner and father of their child, Yannick Balthazar, sits in the courtroom in Pau last month
An investigation revealed that Wauters, who was less than two weeks into the job, inserted the ventilation tube into Hawke’s oesophagus instead of her wind pipe.
She also allegedly used an oxygen mask instead of a ventilator.
A chronic alcoholic, Wauters admitted starting the day with a mix of vodka and water ‘like every day’ for the previous 10 years.
But she denied being solely responsible for Hawke’s death, insisting that the ventilator, which the investigation found she had falsely claimed was not working, and other staff members were also to blame.
The court in Pau ordered Wauters on Thursday to pay nearly 1.4 million euros ($1.65 million) in damages to Hawke’s relatives.
‘Justice has set an example for this type of doctor who, in my eyes, is not a doctor,’ said Hawke’s partner Yannick Balthazar, who was present for the ruling.
At a previous court appearance, Wauters had said that she did not deserve to go to prison.
‘These last six years have been hell,’ Wauters said in October. ‘I carry the death of Xynthia Hawke with me every minute. I accept my responsibility, but I don’t deserve to go to prison.’
In a statement, Wauters added: ‘My job as a doctor makes me responsible for the lives of my patients. I became a doctor to save lives. I could never imagine one day I could have done bad to anyone.
Expat Xynthia Hawke, 28, from Somerset, died shortly after giving birth to son Isaac in September 2014. Her partner Yannick Balthazar (pictured with Hawke) is bringing him up
‘I don’t want to make myself the victim, but I was overwhelmed by this addiction that I still cannot control despite all my efforts.
‘I recognise now that my addiction was incompatible with my job,’ Wauters told the court, adding that ‘I will regret this death my entire life.’
Wauters had given Hawke an epidural local anaesthetic earlier in the day.
During the birth, complications arose, requiring an emergency C-section.
When she returned to the maternity ward after being called in to administer a general anaesthetic, Wauters had alcohol on her breath, according to witnesses.
Hawke woke up during the operation and began vomiting and shouting ‘it hurts’ before ripping out her tubes.
A nurse on duty described the scene as being like something seen during a war.
‘It was Baghdad,’ she said.
Xynthia Hawke’s sister Iris, 36, (right), mother Clare and father Fraser arrive at the courthouse in Pau last month
Prosecutor Orlane Yaouang told Pau Criminal Court last month that Ms Hawke had at first remained conscious through the early stages of the C-section, but at one point screamed: ‘It hurts! It hurts!’
When oxygen began to run out, Wauters used a ventilator ‘that was not connected anything,’ said Ms Yaouang.
‘And then there was a surreal scene – not understanding why it did not work, Mrs Wauters tested the respirator on herself!’ said Ms Yaouang.
Ms Yaouang said Wauters, who is a Belgian national, had not made her country’s medical authorities aware of her alcoholism – as she was professionally obliged to do – so it was a secret.
‘You can’t choose to be an alcoholic, and I can’t blame her for this, but I blame her for putting her patients in danger,’ said Ms Yaouang. ‘She dragged Xynthia down with her.’
Noting that Wauters was still a heavy drinker, Ms Yaouang said: ‘She says she’s been through hell, all these years. But which side [Wauters or the deceased] is hell really on?’
The late Xynthia Hawke’s partner Yannick Balthazar (left), sister Iris, mother Clare and father Fraser sitting the courtroom in Pau before the trial on October 8
Wauters first told investigators she had had a ‘glass of rose’ wine with friends before returning to the hospital.
Just after she was taken into custody, the alcohol content in her blood was found to be 2.38 grams per litre, which typically corresponds to close to 10 glasses of wine, and is more than four times the permitted level when driving in France.
Wauters had moved to France for work after being fired from her job at a Belgian hospital for appearing drunk on the job.
The recruitment agency that hired her on behalf of the clinic had not checked her credentials, the investigation revealed.
Hawke’s parents and sister who attended the trial in October were not expected to be in court Thursday for the verdict. Hawke’s partner, who is bringing up their child, is expected to attend.