My Darling Penny Died after EIGHT Out-of-Hours Doctors Failed to Save Her; GPs Refusing to Treat Patients at Night and Weekends. A&E Units in Meltdown. in This Vital Series, the Mail Investigates the NHS Scandal That's Putting Every Family in Britain at Risk; THE OUT-OF-HOURS DEBACLE

Article excerpt

Byline: by Angus MacKinnon

PENNY'S 50th birthday would have meant a great party. She'd have been to buy a new dress and spent days baking the most elaborate cake she could come up with.

Her birthday should have been a few weeks ago -- Tuesday, May 15, to be exact -- although we'd have thrown her party the weekend before.

It would have been easier for everyone else -- that was Penny's way -- and everyone would have wanted to be there.

They'd have crowded into our little house in Islington, North London: her family, my family; my friends, her friends; neighbours and her colleagues at Time Magazine, where she had risen to become the associate editor of the European edition only a few years after making the unlikely leap from the world of telecommunications consultancy to journalism.

There weren't many people whose lives were not made brighter by knowing Penny. Mine certainly was. We had been together since we were students, nearly 20 years in all. We were both besotted by our lovely little boy, Joseph. I never imagined any life other than the one we had.

So it was hard on the morning she should have turned 50 to believe she had been gone for more than eight years. It was hard to think that Joseph, still as blond as his mother and with the same sunny character, is now nearly 15.

Hard to think how much she has missed. He learned to ride his bike just weeks after she died. Now, he's got braces and does his homework on an iPad before switching over to Facebook.

I know Penny would have loved iPads: there is no limit to the number of recipes you can look up. I think she'd have liked the fact that Facebook reminds you when your friends' birthdays are, but then that was what her little Peter Rabbit birthday book was for. She didn't need a website to remind her to think of others.

It's hard, too, to recall how she was taken away from us, so needlessly, six weeks short of her 42nd birthday.

According to her post-mortem examination, Penny died of multiple organ failure caused by blood poisoning that was the result of a freakishly rare infection that she contracted after a minor surgical procedure.

But the clinical details that emerge from an autopsy never tell the full story of a death. Alone, they can't explain why, on the morning of March 29, 2005, I had to wake a sleeping six-year-old boy, tell him his mother had died and try to make him understand what that meant.

THE simplest way to describe Penny's death would be to say she fell through the widening cracks in our National Health Service. Specifically, she fell through the gap created by the disastrous 2004 decision to take out-of-hours care out of the hands of GPs.

For Penny died because she fell ill over an Easter weekend, on which the doors of our local surgery were bolted shut from Thursday evening until Tuesday morning and the care of its patients left in the hands of a dysfunctional out-of-hours service.

The bacteria that killed her, Group A Streptococcus (GAS), are lethal once they get a hold of your system, but this is no superbug. Antibiotics, delivered promptly in response to the early symptoms of blood poisoning -- clamminess, fever, steadily-increasing pain -- will usually repel it.

Penny died because seven of the eight out-of-hours doctors she consulted over the course of that weekend failed to spot the signs, thanks to a scarcely credible combination of individual incompetence and organisational chaos. She had first begun to feel ill -- queasy and shivery -- on the Thursday afternoon, 24 hours after going to a local hospital clinic for the injection for haemorrhoids that was almost certainly responsible for introducing the GAS bacteria into her bloodstream.

That night, having got the number for the out-of-hours service from a recorded message on our GP's phone line, she rang Camidoc -- the service then responsible for night-time, weekend and holiday cover for our Islington GP and much of North London. …