Tragedy of student with rare cardiac condition

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DOCTORS at Calderdale Royal Infirmary failed to investigate breathing problems suffered by a first-year French student at the University of Leeds who later died from an undiagnosed heart condition, a coroner has said.

Sophia Forrester, 19, from Halifax, was found dead in her bedroom at her student flat in the Plaza, Claypit Lane, on May 20, 2011. A verdict of death by natural causes was recorded by the coroner for Leeds, David Hinchliff.

The inquest at Leeds Coroner’s Court heard Miss Forrester – who was a keen linguist and achieved four As in her A-levels at Greenhead College in Huddersfield – died of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS), a spontaneous cardiac arrest caused by an irregular heartbeat.

It came five months after she had been found “pale and lifeless” at her boyfriend’s home, in December 2010, and was rushed to hospital.

Miss Forrester was discovered to have worryingly low levels of potassium in her body but doctors at Calderdale believed the problem was linked to her breathing, rather than her heart and she was not recommended for cardiac tests.

Dr Andrew Hardy, who treated Miss Forrester, said: “My feeling at the time was that the problem was related to a sleep disorder and the initial comments by the witnesses were that she had difficulty breathing. This was the reason further cardiac examinations did not take place.

“She said she had a vivid dream in which she felt like she was suffocating.” Miss Forrester’s potassium levels returned to normal after several days on medication and she did not inform her family of what had happened.

But coroner Hinchliff read out a report from cardiologist Dr Neil Sulke, who works in Eastborne and did not treat Miss Forrester, who said he would have advised further tests had he treated the student. Instead Miss Forrester was discharged.

Coroner Hinchliff said: “What we know is that this was a heart-related problem.

“Dr Hardy hadn’t appreciated at the time that this could be a cardiac event. There was no attempt at the time to establish why the level of potassium was so low.

“It was appropriate that there should have been some further exploration into why it was so low in the first place.”

Miss Forrester’s father, Tim, said after the hearing that the loss of his daughter was a “tragedy”, adding: “It would be fair to say that the family is extremely disappointed at the total misdiagnosis of Sophia’s low potassium level in December 2010.

“They completely failed to establish the cause of her low potassium and did not take the necessary action to get to the bottom of the problem, and since the family were unaware of this incident, it came as a complete shock.”

He added: “This SADS affects 500 young people a year in England. In about 25 per cent of these cases there is a chance to save the person but in Sophia’s case our family had no opportunity to save her because this illness was completely unknown to the family.

“It was not revealed to us and that is the tragedy that we have to deal with.”