A woman who died weeks after being struck in the head by her daughter, who has acute special needs, would still be alive if she had received the respite assistance she had begged for, her family has said.
Claudine O’Farrell Knight, from Riverside in Clifden, Co Galway, died on May 7th, 2021 at Galway University Hospital (UHG).
Galway West Coroner’s Court heard on Friday that she and Vincent Knight had begged for more respite care for their teenage daughter in the years before her death.
The court heard that their teenage daughter has been prone to anger and violence since she was five due to her complex medical needs. She suffers from severe seizures, has a benign tumour on the base of her brain and has been diagnosed with conditions including autism, OCD and ADHD.
Their daughter was described as being extremely strong, standing at almost 6ft tall and weighing around 18 stone. Her conditions and outbursts of anger worsened as she got older and she became impossible to control when her school was temporarily closed because of the pandemic in early 2021, the family said.
The court heard of a series of violent incidents involving the teenager including a “four-day rage” in 2019, when she “destroyed” the family home and physically assaulted both her parents. Mr Knight told the court that he and his wife were often “black and blue” as a result of her outbursts in 2020.
The court heard that in early February 2021, Ms O’Farrell Knight was struck in the head by her daughter and knocked off her feet. The incident happened when she attempted to prevent her daughter from taking food from the fridge.
“Claudine got an awful wallop. It knocked her off her feet and she felt dizzy,” Mr Knight said.
The court heard that over the next few weeks Ms O’Farrell Knight experienced severe headaches and, after becoming ill at work on April 15th, went for an emergency CT scan at UHG, where two separate bleeds were discovered on her brain.
She was transferred to Beaumont Hospital in Dublin where she underwent a procedure to relieve the resulting pressure, which appeared to go well, and she returned home after five days. However, two days after her staples were removed she developed a fever and was rushed to UHG where she died on May 7th.
Mr Knight told the coroner’s court he believed his wife would still be alive if the family had received more respite care.
“The last two years were a nightmare. When I would walk to our house each night, I would hear the screaming,” he said.
“We begged for help over the past two years. I am holding a lot of ill will towards the HSE. I am angry and I want to stop this from happening to anyone else.”
Ms O’Farrell Knight’s sister, Eimear, said there were “countless meetings” with the HSE and other organisations in an effort to get more respite, but to no avail. She said that during a 2019 meeting with Tusla and the HSE they warned that a member of the family would get seriously hurt if they were not given more assistance and respite.
“We want to know why our sister had to die before she could get help?” she asked..
Claudine’s mother, Margaret O’Farrell, told the inquest that her daughter was a “sweet, loving and caring” person who was given a “heavy cross” to carry.
“I cannot understand how she was not given help. My daughter would be alive today if she had been given help,” she said.
Ms O’Farrell Knight’s sister, Orla, said one of the great tragedies was that Claudine would never get to see her daughter’s improvement and happiness having gone into full-time care after her mother’s death.
Pathologist Margaret Bolstersaid that while Ms O’Farrell Knight did not die as a direct result of the trauma to her head, it was the “trigger for a cascade of events” which followed. The direct cause, she said, was a heart attack, with secondary causes including pneumonia and a viral infection which exacerbated a pre-existing autoimmune disease.
Coroner Ciaran McLoughlin delivered a narrative verdict and called for greater respite services to be made available for the parents of children with acute special needs and for better communication generally in the health system.
“It is very clear that she was a wonderful mother,” he said. “It would be great if there was a funded residential facility for people who are under eighteen in this country. We also need better communication between our institutions.”