The mother of a toddler from the island of Kos who died en route to hospital in Athens earlier this month after suddenly falling ill hours before has blamed the “terrible standard of healthcare” on the island for his unexpected death.
Sarah Spanos, originally from the UK, believes her “very happy healthy little boy” Loukas, who was only 18 months when he died, didn’t get the care he deserved on the Dodecanese island, where the local hospital has been without a paediatrician for four years, leaving parents to rely on local private doctors. In recent years, islanders have repeatedly highlighted the effects of austerity cuts on public healthcare on the island, said to be the birthplace of Hippocrates, leaving the local hospital understaffed.
Loukas was pronounced dead at around 5.30am on October 4 in an Athens hospital, 14 hours after his mother noticed that he had a temperature.
“Every detail of that night will haunt us forever,” says Sarah, who eight years ago moved from the UK to Kos after meeting her husband Dimitris, whom she married four years later.
Deeply concerned for the wellbeing of their other son, they have now decided to return to the UK as a result of losing Loukas. “Our life has been destroyed. We must leave our family, our home, everything we love to keep our remaining child safe,” she says.
Little Loukas had been his usual self that fateful Friday, playing happily all day long. He had a runny nose and a slight cough, which he probably picked up from his older brother Antonis, a three-year-old who had started nursery the previous week. Other than that, he seemed fine and healthy to his mother, who gave him some paracetamol when she noticed that he had a temperature at around 3pm. Then, she breastfed him and put him down for a nap at 6pm, just like any other day.
When he awoke an hour later, his breathing was fast and sounded laboured. His parents then called their paediatrician, who told them to clean out his nose and if that didn’t help he would see him. Sarah says they knew it wasn’t his nose because it looked clear, so they decided to bring him to the same doctor.
But it would be almost two hours before the doctor saw Loukas, as his practice was quite busy when his parents got there. It was one of many delays that Sarah now plays over and over in her head, wondering if Loukas would still be alive were he diagnosed and treated correctly from the beginning.
“It was about 9pm when we got to see the doctor. He checked Loukas over. He had 40 degrees temperature and the doctor gave him some Ponstan [non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug] and told us to go to another doctor’s office to get a chest x-ray. It was about 9.45pm,” Sarah recalls.
They had to wait again before the x-ray could be taken, because that doctor had another patient and had switched off the machines because of the late hour. After he finally conducted the test, the doctor noticed little spots on Loukas’ lungs and suspected pneumonia, a opinion which the paediatrician also agreed was a possibility. It was at this stage that Sarah and her husband were told that Loukas would need to be given oxygen and treated at Kos hospital.
At the children’s ward in the hospital, a nurse put Loukas on a drip and put an oxygen mask on him. Crucially, he was left lying down, not sitting up, as his parents later learned should have been the case when their private paediatrician arrived at the hospital about an hour later. When blood tests showed that Loukas had something bacterial, he was then given an antibiotic drip.
“Loukas looked very pale, even his lips. We told the paediatric nurse, who just said that it was because he was ill. We also told the paediatrician that Loukas’ tummy looked swollen; he didn’t give an explanation or seem worried. Loukas vomited once; something dark brown,” recalls Sarah.
Later, she and her husband were told that as a special plane was leaving Kos to bring a premature baby in an incubator to an Athens hospital, they might as well bring Loukas there too. When Loukas was being prepared for the trip, Sarah says, it was noticed that the antibiotic drip hadn’t been in his arm at all.
As she pores through every detail of that night, Sarah cannot understand how no one at the hospital spotted that the drip wasn’t working for those crucial two hours. It’s one of many questions she wants answered.
The special flight for Athens left at 2.15am. During the flight, Loukas vomited again, but Sarah and her husband were not overtly concerned as they firmly believed Loukas was in good hands. There were two paramedics on board. “They were monitoring him all the time and said he was fine. We were not worried,” Sarah says.
In the ambulance that was waiting for them in Athens to ferry them to hospital, a paramedic told Sarah to let Loukas sleep as he looked tired. Sarah said the paramedic then went to sit behind her where he could not see Loukas.
She now asks herself why the paramedic wasn’t monitoring her sick child. It’s another one of the many questions from that night that she wants answered.
“Loukas was on my knee with my arms around him and my husband was next to me. He asked if Loukas was ok. I felt something change in Loukas like all the air had gone out of him. I shouted ‘Something is wrong, help him!’ I saw there was blood coming from his nose. The paramedic laid Loukas on the bed rubbing him. Shouting ‘Loukas!’, trying to revive him and telling the driver to rush and not stop,” Sarah recounts.
Loukas was still unresponsive when he arrived at the hospital, she continues. “They rushed him inside and into a room; we were not allowed inside. After 20 minutes, a doctor called us inside. They told us that he was alive but he was very, very ill. He had had a cardiac and respiratory arrest and they didn’t know why. He wasn’t breathing alone. They took him to intensive care. After 30 minutes, they came and told us that his heart had stopped again and he had died; it was 5.30am.”
Although initial autopsy results show that a pulmonary haemorrhage caused cardiac and respiratory arrest, Sarah has been told that it will take two to three months before the full autopsy report is issued.
In the desperate search for answers, she has spoken to an experienced paediatric nurse from England who believes all Loukas’ symptoms point to sepsis. “Rapid diagnosis and simple treatment is essential” for that, Sarah says.
“We are in a nightmare. But while life goes on for everyone else, it is a nightmare we will never wake up from. Our little boy is gone, nothing can bring him back. But I do want to share his story he was a very healthy little boy and so happy. He deserved so much better,” she says.
“The hospital in Kos has no paediatrician. The staff are not competent and they do not have basic equipment. My little boy is not the only one who died this year due to the terrible standard of healthcare on this island.
“Nobody was worried about Loukas; nobody gave us any sign that he was in danger. Everybody was saying he was fine. We were not worried about him; it never entered our heads that he could die. They were not even looking at him when he died. How could so many people not see that he was so ill?
As she prepares to leave Greece for the UK, Sarah just hopes that no other parent on Kos will have to experience the same incredible loss they have suffered.
“Something must be done. This could have happened to anybody. We have 34,000 residents all year round and hundreds of thousands in the summertime. Yet the hospital can only give basic first aid. How many more innocent children must die before something is done? The people of Kos just pray that it will not happen to them and the tourists have no idea they put their lives at risk when visiting Kos,” she says.
“We believe if we had got him straight into a real hospital he would have survived. If it was pneumonia or sepsis, all he needed was treatment. From the moment we called the doctor to when they gave him antibiotics finally took six hours. Nobody was monitoring him in the hospital.
“Nobody gave him the care he deserved.”
* Following Loukas Spanos’ death, an online petition was set up calling on the authorities to ensure that Kos hospital is staffed and equipped to deal with the island’s needs.