A three-year-old boy had both his legs and most of his fingers amputated after doctors failed to spot the signs of Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Reuben Harvey-Smith was taken to Ipswich Hospital A&E after accidentally burning himself. When his mum Lou took him back two days later with a fever and sore throat he was wrongly diagnosed as having tonsillitis.
The following day he was fighting for his life.
He was later diagnosed with Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), a life-threatening infection caused by bacteria entering the wound and releasing poisonous toxins into his blood.
Reuben had to have both legs amputated below the knee and also lost seven fingers after the infection took hold in July last year.
But mum Lou, from Chelmondiston in Suffolk, says her little ‘Mr Positive’ refuses to let it get him down.
She said: “He came round from the operation and the first thing he did was ask for ‘mummy cuddles’ and his dinner. He looked at his amputated legs and said ‘poorly feet gone, get new ones.’
“He just accepts it and gets on with things. He never gets frustrated.
“I try not to waste energy getting angry because at the end of the day I’ve still got my son, but what I have got to do now is make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
Reuben was seen again at Ipswich Hospital two days after burning himself when, concerned that he was dehydrated and still unwell, his mum returned with him to A&E.
But his sore throat and fever were diagnosed as tonsillitis, despite a recognised link between burns and TSS, and he was sent home with antibiotics.
The next day, convinced that something wasn’t right, Lou called the burns unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital where doctors immediately suspected toxic shock.
Reuben was rushed back to Ipswich Hospital before being transferred to intensive care at St Mary’s in Paddington.
He survived, but medics were forced to amputate both of his legs below the knee. He also had to have seven fingers and the tips of his thumbs removed.
Lou, 41, later launched legal action against Ipswich Hospital NHS Trust which has now admitted that amputation could have been avoided if toxic shock – described as a ‘significant possibility’ based on his symptoms at the time – had been diagnosed and treated earlier.
Lou, who is assistant director at the Home Office, said: “I was really concerned, but I took a lot from the doctors saying it wasn’t anything to do with the burn. It never occurred to me to make the link.
“I was assured that all the symptoms he had were linked to tonsillitis, but I have since learned that a sore throat can also be a sign of sepsis or toxic shock.
“It is extremely rare, but it can be life-threatening and it’s just getting people to think because it’s something that can progress so quickly, but if caught early can lead to a full recovery.”
Her lawyer, Tim Deeming, a clinical negligence specialist from Slater and Gordon, added: “Reuben has life changing injuries as the team made the wrong diagnosis in suspecting a throat infection. It is extremely concerning they were aware of the link between burns and toxic shock, yet didn’t consider this for Reuben’s case.
“With toxic shock syndrome early diagnosis is vital as the potential outcome can be catastrophic, as occurred here. That is why it is imperative that lessons are learned to ensure this doesn’t happen again both at Ipswich and across the NHS, especially taking into account the new recommendations on sepsis treatment.”
Lou, who has two older sons, William, 22, and Harry, 12, is now fundraising for better prosthetic legs so Reuben can get around more easily.
She said: “He got his first pair of prosthetics just before Christmas and has already needed to have a second pair fitted.
“He will ask for his legs to be on, but he can only walk on them for about 10 minutes at a time.
“The NHS ones enable him to do the basics, but I want him to be able to run around and be a child.
“Unfortunately, those kind of prosthetics cost at least £6,000 and he will need new ones once or twice a year.”
Reuben’s story has also inspired an internet campaign to raise awareness of the link between burns and Toxic Shock Syndrome.
The Reuben Bear campaign aims to help people remember and recognise the signs in four simple steps:
B for burn – Has the patient suffered recent burns or other injury?
E for Examine – Are there any signs of infection such as a fever, sore throat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, aching muscles, dizziness or feeling faint?
A for Advice – Toxic Shock Syndrome and sepsis can be life-threatening so if you suspect someone is suffering from either seek medical advice immediately.
R for Referral – Ask for a referral to a specialist burns unit if you are concerned about TSS.
For more information and to keep up with Reuben’s progress go to the ‘Reuben Bear Campaign’ page on Facebook, follow @ReubenBearCamp on Twitter or make a donation at gofundme.com/ReubenBearCampaign