By Joe Leogue
The parents of a two-year-old Cork boy with cancer say he could have died had doctors in their native Poland not detected the tumour after his condition was misdiagnosed at Cork University Hospital.
Sebastian Witkowski has suffered superior vena cava syndrome — an obstruction of blood flow to his heart — due to a 8cm by 9cm tumour on his chest his parents say was missed in a scan in CUH.
Now Sebastian is undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatment in Poland and the family say they are worried about meeting the financial demands of his treatment as the cover provided by the State is running out.
Agnieszka and Pawel Witkowski are self-employed, living in Cork since 2009. Sebastian was born in July 2015 and suffered no significant health problems until last February.
A cough his parents initially dismissed as a bug picked up in creche did not clear, and a GP visit led to an X-Ray in the Mercy University Hospital and a diagnosis of severe bronchitis and an enlarged thymus gland.
He was discharged with a prescription, but Sebastian showed no signs of improvement and 10 days later presented again to his GP with quinsy.
More antibiotics were prescribed, but the persistent coughing was then accompanied by swelling of his face and chest, and a tennis-ball sized bruise on his chest.
Pawel Witkowski yesterday told 96FM’s Opinion Line that they brought his son to CUH, where they waited nine hours for an X-Ray and were discharged, having been told the bruise was probably as a result of a bump or fall.
“We trusted the doctors in the hospital, we all do, they should know their job and that’s how it works. But somewhere inside of our heart we felt that something is extremely wrong and not right,” Mr Witkowski told host PJ Coogan.
The couple had a holiday booked in their native Poland, but decided to bring Sebastian back sooner to have him assessed there.
“In the plane the situation started becoming very serious because his difficulties with breathing was very bad and he lay down on the floor all the way along,” said Mr Witkowski.
“As soon as we landed in Poland we just went to the emergency department again.
“They did the exact same thing, the x-ray on the front of the chest and the side of the chest and they discovered straight away the tumour, a big tumour actually. It is nine by eight by seven centimetres big.
“They did the x-ray [and] after 10 minutes they came back to us [to say] that there is a tumour inside of the little boy’s chest. Because of that he had the difficulties with breathing.
“[It is an] enormous, huge tumour inside of the little boy’s chest, pushing on his arteries and basically the doctors in Poland said that my son was in danger of dying in the next 48 hours if the tumour was not reduced.”
Sebastian was diagnosed with a malignant lymphoblastic lymphoma cancer, stage III and was sent to an oncology centre for children in Poland.
However having left Ireland, the Witkowskis were told that their European Health Insurance Card would only cover their medical costs for three months.
“The lady who we spoke with from the HSE said that after those three months, June 6, after that they don’t really know what to do with us because we are abroad,” said Mr Witkowski.
“This is not our choice, to be here, we prefer to be there because we probably going to lose our jobs because we are self-employed for 10 years.
“We can’t work at the moment. My wife is very depressed and we were staying with Sebastian 24-7. So I presume, in a few months time it’ll be a hard time,” he said.
Mr Witkowski said he has questions for the HSE.
“I have a thousand questions and I am afraid that some of them would be without answer,” he said.
“The doctors in Poland said that it was kind of a miracle because technically he shouldn’t survive the flight because of the difference in the pressure.”
He said Sebastian cannot walk and “is not smiling anymore” as a result of being weak from the aggressive chemotherapy. He is not well enough to travel back to Ireland, and his treatment could last up to two years.
“The treatment of Sebastian is terrible for us because we can do nothing, we just stay in next to his bed and just watch the worst nightmare.
“We never used any of the social benefits or social payments, we always been working hard...we can’t use any support from the welfare because we are abroad,” said Mr Witkowski.
He said other families in Ireland have contacted them about their own cases of misdiagnoses having learned of their plight through an online fundraiser set up to help them with their costs.
The gofundme page has raised over €20,000 in just over two weeks.
“I am so grateful for all of the people of goodwill in Cork and the whole island because it has lots of angel people there. Really we just feel that we are not alone because of all of those good people,” Mr Witkowski said.
A spokesperson for CUH said it cannot comment on individual cases.
The donation page can be found here.
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.