When Heather Wilhelm’s mother went into Stafford Hospital for what appeared to be a simple bladder complaint, she hoped its doctors would quickly put things right.
Instead what followed was a sequence of events which would see Mrs Wilhelm lose three of her closest and dearest relatives to what were later described by inspectors as “appalling” standards of patient care.
In the space of just 18 months not only Mrs Wilhelm’s mother, but her father and husband were to die on Stafford’s wards.
She is one of nearly 100 bereaved relatives and victims now being paid more than £1 million compensation in the largest ever group claim against a British hospital.
“It’s been a long hard road and it still really upsets me to think about it,” said Mrs Wilhelm, 55. “I lost the three people closest to me.
“They went into hospital to get the treatment and care to make them better. Instead, one by one, they came out of that place in their coffins.
“First my mum, then nine months later my dad and then nine months after that my husband, all on the same filthy, understaffed, badly managed wards.”
Mrs Wilhelms’s mother, Pauline Nicklin, was first referred to the hospital for what was thought to be a chronic water infection in May 2004.
She was told she had a weak bladder, but when she was rushed back into Stafford with severe swelling two years later doctors discovered that she had been suffering from ovarian cancer all along.
She died in April 2006, aged 71, following surgery and repeated rounds of chemotherapy.
In January 2007, nine months after the death of her mother, Mrs Wilhelms’s father Percy went to accident and emergency with severe pain in his feet but was sent home without treatment despite his toes having turned black.
It was only when Mrs Wilhelms returned to the hospital with her father that doctors diagnosed blood poisoning and gangrene in his feet. The retired railway worker was given paracetamol, but died four days later, aged 76.
By then her husband Tom had fallen ill and had been admitted to the hospital with breathing difficulties from Obstructive Breathing Apnoea.
Nine months later he was rushed back into Stafford A&E fighting for breath. Mrs Wilhelms said: “There was no oxygen mask, no bell, nothing.”
Her husband died two days later.
“What makes it worse is that we were still complaining about my mum’s treatment when my dad died, and we were still complaining about my mum and dad’s treatment when Tom died. But nothing ever changed,” said Mrs Wilhelms.
The family of Dorothy Harrison underwent a similar experience.
The retired local government worker died in January 2009, aged 69, after what her daughter Heather described as “shockingly inadequate” treatment.
After undergoing exploratory surgery for stomach pains at Stafford in November 2008, Mrs Harrison developed pneumonia. She was treated in the critical care unit for a month before being admitted to a general ward.
Her daughter says staff failed to administer her medicines, left her mother on the lavatory for hours on end and failed to check that she was eating properly. Mrs Harrison suffered two falls and her health deteriorated dramatically.
She died after being admitted back into the hospital’s critical care unit, having contracted the Clostridium difficile infection.
Heather Harrison, 47, an appointments officer at a private hospital in Lincolnshire, said: “Before going into hospital my mother had been a healthy and independent woman and its shocking that something like this could happen to her in this day and age.
“I complained to the hospital after her death and despite receiving a letter from Stafford saying someone would contact me to take details of my complaint nobody ever did.
“I didn’t go after the settlement because of the money. I just wanted an apology and for conditions to improve.
“The money will help but it will never bring my mum back.”
To this day, the family of Ivy Bunn regret sending her to Stafford Hospital.
The retired dinner lady suffered after a series of falls at the hospital which culminated in her death from severe head injuries in November 2008.
Mrs Bunn was admitted to the hospital in October that year after collapsing at home. Her GP had previously diagnosed her with vertigo, but staff at the hospital found she was suffering from severe dehydration and high levels of potassium.
During her stay at the hospital she suffered three falls in the space of only a few days, though at the time her family were only informed about two of them.
After the first fall – during which she had hit her head -Mrs Bunn’s son Graham found her blood-soaked nightie stuffed into her bedside table, soaked in blood.
Over the next few days 90-year-old Mrs Bunn became increasingly confused and began to experience disturbingly morbid thoughts.
Alerted by staff one evening Mr Bunn and his sister, Heather, arrived at the hospital to find their mother lying on the ward floor being cradled by a doctor. She had suffered another, this time fatal, fall. Her head was covered in blood.
X-rays revealed that Mrs Bunn was suffering from swelling of the brain and internal bleeding. She died a day later without recovering consciousness.
Mr Bunn, 70, said staff showed scant regard for his mother during her stay and failed to give her the care and treatment she deserved.
“One doctor apologised and said they had let her down badly. He was only one person at Stafford who showed any sort of regret,” he said.
Mr Bunn, a retired police civilian worker, added: “We sent her into hospital suffering from something she would have recovered from.
“In hindsight it might have been better to keep her at home. I fought this case not for the money, but because my mother deserved far better care than she received.”