The Belgian anesthesiologist Helga Wauters appeared at the Pau correctional court on Thursday and Friday for manslaughter after the death of a woman during her childbirth in September 2014. The maximum penalty, three years in prison, was requested by the prosecution. .
Xynthia Hawke was the kind of girl who talked to animals, marveled at the sight of a butterfly on a hike. The kind of girl, “funny” and “Radiant”, to take you on board with a smile. Evidenced by the courtroom filled with his parents and many friends from Chamonix, the United Kingdom or Spain. “I miss her when I see something beautiful, nicely said his older sister Iris before the criminal court of Pau (Pyrénées-Atlantiques). We know that on the night of September 25 to 26, 2014, she suffered a lot, this injustice makes me angry. “ The 28-year-old Briton died after her cesarean delivery at the Orthez maternity hospital, where she had been anesthetized by a Belgian doctor under the influence of alcohol. Six years after the events, Helga Wauters, 51, appeared free under judicial supervision for “manslaughter”, October 8 and 9. Under the coffered ceiling of the court, the major of the gendarmerie who led the investigation has this sad formula: “It must have been the happiest day of her life for Xynthia Hawke, it’s the day she will lose her life. She will never have known that she gave birth to a boy and will have kissed her companion for the last time in a hospital corridor. “
“Negligence” and “recklessness”
That day, an epidural is first asked to the young sales manager, whose term has passed. Helga Wauters arrives without a blouse, emitting a strong odor. Xynthia and Yannick, fused since their meeting three years earlier, tell themselves that she is “A little space” but quickly move on. In the evening, it was decided to perform a Caesarean section under general anesthesia due to a “Fetal distress”. Before leaving for the OR, Xynthia reassures her companion: “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” The exact opposite will happen. Helga Wauters will accumulate “Negligence, recklessness and clumsiness”, according to the prosecution. The investigation established that the Belgian intubated the patient’s esophageal tract instead of the respiratory tract. “If the probe is not placed in the respiratory tract, the anesthetic gases and oxygen do not pierce the lungs, so the patient wakes up, and above all, has no more oxygen”, explains an expert.
The baby is born at 10:22 p.m., suddenly Xynthia Hawke is agitated. The monitor rings. “Madame vomits, struggles, asks that the catheter be withdrawn, tore it out.” She shouts repeatedly: “that hurts” “ in his native language, describes the director of the investigation at the bar. Supposed to be asleep, the young woman manages to extract her arm from the velcro to put her hand on her open stomach. “I ask you to imagine for two seconds what she might have felt … And Mme Wauters saw nothing, did nothing, noticed nothing ”, tance Me Philippe Courtois, the family lawyer, who requests his ban from practicing “For the serenity and safety of all”. In lack of oxygen, Xynthia Hawke “Had the color of death”, the emergency nurse will say. Unable to use the ventilator, the anesthesiologist uses a manual balloon to ventilate her: it is not connected to any oxygen supply … “It was Baghdad.” The president read the testimony of the midwife: “We were all embarrassed by the behavior of Dr Wauters. I don’t think anyone trusted her. And yet, he was the chef in the room. ”
“It was surreal”
Called for help with her team, emergency doctor Yousra Mostefai recalls: “There was a sort of general astonishment, including from the anesthetist. We were expected to take action, to get them out of this situation. ” As soon as she arrived, she diagnosed the patient with cardiac arrest. Helga Wauters disputes. “It was surreal, his interventions were not adequate”, continues the emergency physician. Transferred to Pau hospital, Xynthia Hawke died four days later.
“Have you ever encountered a situation as incredible as that of September 26?” asks the lawyer for the clinic, who is a civil party. “Never”, answers Yousra Mostefai, thirty years of experience. “Was it an event that traumatized you?” “Of course, and which still traumatizes many people, let go of the doctor. It’s etched in the history of the hospital. The climate of trust with the population was very, very compromised for many months… In people’s minds, it remains a dramatic event. I think everyone is seeing it as a personal drama because it’s a situation that shouldn’t be happening. ” In the first row on the bench of the civil parties, Yannick nods. For six years, he has been raising his son Isaac on his own, miraculously coming out of this nightmare safe and sound.
Earlier, Helga Wauters had read her statement in court. The trembling hands, the feverish voice: “I know that you expect answers from me, that the family has a right to expect answers, but I have decided to assert my right to remain silent. I have too much trouble expressing myself properly. […] I am fully aware of my responsibility, my status as a doctor made me responsible for the life of my patient. I don’t want to pass myself off as a victim, but I was totally overwhelmed by my addiction, incompatible with the exercise of my profession. […] I will regret this tragedy all my life, I carry the weight of Mrs. Hawke’s passing with me every minute. “
Fourth establishment in five years
In the absence of questioning, the President cited the minutes. About the respirator: “It was a model that I did not know, I did not feel safe with this machine, I would have had to use it ten or twenty times”, Wauters defended herself in the examining magistrate’s office. Or : “I assure you that I was not drunk, really, I was in possession of all my means.” The defendant believes that she is being made “Bear the weight of this drama alone”, denouncing poor communication in the team and describing the clinic as “Dispensary”. “Collective responsibility is not legal, but it is true”, pleads Me Antoine Vey, in place of his initial counsel, Eric Dupond-Moretti, who has since become Keeper of the Seals. A time put under examination, the Orthez hospital and the Labat clinic (bound by an agreement) in fine benefited from a dismissal. “The hospital center was never consulted on the hiring of Helga Wauters, justifies the prosecutor. As for the clinic, she could not have known that Mr.me Wauters was an alcoholic and who could talk about it first? She was careful not to say that it was her fourth establishment in five years. “
After a resignation and two dismissals for serious misconduct in Belgium – like this time when she presented herself staggering, hanging on the ramp, to perform a cesarean – Helga Wauters had been recruited in Orthez, cast by a private practice as a result the departure of two Bulgarian anesthetists. Like other rural health establishments struggling to recruit, the clinic used foreign doctors. But career incidents have never been traced back to the Order of Belgian Physicians and its former employers have not been contacted. No one therefore knew that in his final contract, a surprising clause had been mentioned: at any time, the anesthesiologist could be forced to take a breathalyzer. In post for barely a fortnight at the clinic, Wauters already had the reputation of a doctor of dubious competence, who is reluctant to travel for emergencies, gripes about being woken up, makes medication errors … moreover, being laid off for not having responded during an on-call duty.
We will therefore not have heard this daughter of a gynecologist and an economics professor say at the helm how alcoholism devoured every part of her life, gradually led her to a succession of failures until that night of horror, she who was a brilliant student and whose participation in humanitarian missions was welcomed. Helga Wauters started drinking after a painful separation from her partner in 2005. It was the start of a roller coaster – still relevant despite her obligation to take care – between sobriety and relapses. Four detox treatments will do nothing. At the examining magistrate, Helga Wauters confirmed drinking “All day long”. In order not to tremble, it begins as soon as you wake up. In order not to be unmasked, it conceals in a plastic bottle of 50 cl a “Deadly cocktail”, he said 1000e Courtois: half vodka, half water. At his home, the gendarmes will find fourteen empty vodka bottles.
Alcohol and headlong flight
Already sentenced in Belgium for drunk driving, she will also be sentenced in Périgueux a few months after the tragedy of Orthez. When she was first called to the gendarmerie, the morning of Xynthia Hawke’s death, the anesthetist presented herself with a blood alcohol level of 2.40 g. Between trivialization and minimization, psychologists and psychiatrists experts note a “Great psychic fragility” and an absence of “Real guilt”. On the day of delivery, Helga Wauters had drunk in the morning, at noon, then two glasses of rosé as an aperitif, between the epidural and the cesarean section of her patient. The doctor simply feels «incapable» to exercise in the OR without being alcoholic. “It’s a disease, we suffer from it and it is undeniable”, more Helga Wauters a “Trampled on the Hippocratic oath out of self-indulgence”, thunders the prosecutor. Who describes the flight forward of the Belgian, whose reputation had ended up preceding it in the small circle of doctors, and castigates: “She’s going abroad because she’s toast!” The magistrate requests the maximum penalty: three years in prison with a definitive ban on practice.
Finally, the anesthetist came out of his silence to utter his last words, those customarily granted to suspects before the court withdrew. Eyes reddened, there is the frail figure prostrate above the microphone, almost encumbered by itself. Long silence. “What I would like is to be useful to society again.” She says she does not deserve prison, would like to return to live with her parents. “She needs protection for herself”, had insisted just before Me Vey, pleading that Helga Wauters not be reduced “To his act, nor to his addiction”. Aware that his choice to keep silent could be frustrating and difficult for the victims to accept, the counsel emphasized: “The right to remain silent means that she does not dispute. If we could challenge, we would. “ In the distance, we see this ghost in the city, staring at his sneakers. The court will deliver its decision on November 12.