Maedhbh McGivern, 14, was standing in an aircraft hangar in Sligo, ready to board a helicopter to England, when the flight was called off.
Doctors at Kings Cross Hospital in London had to break the news by phone that the efforts to get Maedhbh a flight had taken so long, the donor liver couldn’t wait.
Her father Joe McGivern said his daughter was devastated and the whole family left deeply upset: “Her life has been on hold and this operation was going to give her back her life.
“The poor thing broke down in the middle of the hangar. She just stood there, sobbing her heart out. How do you watch your child go through that? How do I encapsulate that feeling in words?”
Maedhbh, who has been on the transplant list since last August and has been unable to attend school since January, was in her family home in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, when the call came through on Saturday at 7.20pm from Kings Cross informing her that a donor liver was available and the family were to get ready and await further instructions.
Around half an hour later they got a call from Emergency Medical Support Services (EMSS), a private Dublin-based transport co- ordination company used by hospitals in transplant cases, saying they were handling the case and again the family were to stand by and wait for instructions.
It is not known why critical minutes were lost at this stage. “We were ready to go from the first call. We’ve had our bags packed since last August. All we wanted to be told was where to go,” Mr McGivern said.
“About an hour after that we got another call from EMSS to say they were running into problems — that the Air Corps helicopter was out at an accident, the Coast Guard helicopter was down with technical difficulties and private jets were tied up with Wimbledon. We were starting to get edgy because we knew the clock was ticking.”
The family got another call close to 10pm to say a Coast Guard helicopter was available in Sligo so they got a Garda escort and made it there shortly before 11pm.
“We’d also been told to find out how long it would take to get to London and pass that information on. The crew told us we’d be airborne by 11.30pm but it would take about four hours to reach Heathrow because we’d have to stop for refuelling, and then it would take another half an hour to get to Kings Cross.
“When we passed that information on, the call came back saying, sorry but we had to be there at 2am at the latest. So that was it — we had to turn around and come home again. What’s worse is that the crew in Sligo told us they’d been there since 6pm and there were no technical difficulties so we don’t know why they weren’t made available sooner.”
There was confusion yesterday as to why the normally efficient transplant transport procedures failed.
The Air Corps confirmed its air ambulance helicopter was bringing a spinal injuries patient from Kerry to Dublin when it got a call to assist with the case from HSE Ambulance Command and Control at 7.55pm but a statement said a helicopter would have been of no use as the usual landing point at the Royal Air Force base at Northolt in England was unavailable and Heathrow was out of range for the type of helicopter used.
It said a plane would have been available at Baldonnel air base at 10.30pm but this offer was declined, although the reason is not known.
The plane on offer was a G4, a fast-flying jet which it is understood could have flown from Baldonnel to Sligo and on to Heathrow in time. Alternatively, the McGiverns could have driven to Baldonnel. Mr McGivern said he had timed the journey by road to Dublin Airport — further away from Baldonnel — at two and a half hours.
The HSE said the Coast Guard was called to assist at 8.10pm but “The Coast Guard advised that they had no aircraft available”. However the Coast Guard said it only got a call to assist at 8.50pm and assigned the Sligo crew to the task but they were notified at 10.50pm that their services were no longer needed.
Declan Traynor of EMSS, which handled the McGivern case, said he could not comment on what happened but added: “It was out of my control.
“Something broke down in the communication or co-ordination,” said Mr McGivern. “The chance is gone now but we want to be sure nothing like this happens again because we don’t know how many chances Maedhbh will be given.”
Maedhbh is in frequent pain from her condition which has caused her spleen to swell and push down on her stomach. “Our constant battle is to keep her free of infection because once she has an infection, she comes off the transplant list. We’re keeping her cocooned here but to be housebound at the age of 14 is very difficult for her.”
Mr McGivern said Kings Cross told him the donor liver was being offered to the next person on the list. “I only hope it worked out for that person. I don’t want to think that the mess-up here might have cost someone else the chance of a transplant too.”