Baby bath drowning tragedy is a lesson for parents, says coroner

Alex McCartney
Alex McCartney
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Lessons learned from the death of an infant in just five inches of bath water could “spare other families the agony” of having to endure a similar drowning tragedy, a coroner has said.

Baby Alex McCartney was in the bath at his Lurgan home in January last year when his mother Joanne Pedlow, 33, went downstairs briefly to switch the kettle on, an inquest in Belfast has heard.

The eight-month-old had been in a purpose-built seat, attached to the bath by four suction cups on January 17, 2015.

His two-year-old sister Lily was also in the bath at the time.

While in the kitchen, Ms Pedlow’s brother Richard Pedlow and his partner Nichola Barr arrived to drop off their own child for a visit and entered the house through the front door.

They spoke briefly in the kitchen before being alerted to Lily crying upstairs.

Ms Pedlow said she heard her two-year-old daughter crying and rushed upstairs, along with her brother and his partner, to find Alex face down in the water.

Ms Barr told coroner Suzanne Anderson that she was first to reach the bathroom but initially couldn’t see Alex as she approached the bath.

“I immediately put my two hands under him” and lifted him out, she said.

“His face looked grey and his lips were blue. I could see the blue bath seat floating in the bath.”

Mr Pedlow followed closely behind his partner.

He said they had only been in the house “about a minute to a minute-and-a-half” when Lily was heard crying.

Mr Pedlow added: “I could see as soon as I went into the bathroom that Alex was in the water.

“I noticed that the blue bath seat was floating in the bath between Alex and Lily.”

Ms Barr said she began resuscitating the infant while her partner called 999 and put the operator on speakerphone to relay instructions.

She added: “I took him [Alex] out onto the landing and laid him down. I tilted his head back to see what I could do.”

Paramedic Aidan Kelly was on the scene within minutes and an ambulance arrived soon afterwards.

Mr Kelly told the inquest he had been on duty in the Lurgan area when he received the emergency call at 1.04pm.

On arrival at Charles Barron Gardens, Mr Kelly said he was met by a man outside the house who directed him inside to where family members were working to revive baby Alex.

“I could hear an adult female crying,” he said.

Having made his way upstairs, Mr Kelly said he saw the young child lying on the landing.

“He was pale, cold to the touch and wet,” Mr Kelly added.

The paramedic said an ambulance arrived within minutes.

The unresponsive infant was initially taken to Craigavon Area Hospital but later transferred to Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children.

Alex survived for four days on life support at the RVH, but died almost immediately after the decision was taken to remove his breathing tube on January 21.

In a statement read at the hearing, a hospital consultant said the child had “suffered a catastrophic brain injury as a result of being submerged in bath water”.

Alex was then said to have developed pneumonia as a result of his life support system.

Ms Pedlow, a distribution co-ordinator, and her partner Stephen McCartney, a joiner, decided to donate Alex’s organs for transplant and his liver and kidneys were used to save the lives of other children.

The coroner said the tragedy raised an “important learning issue” for parents and “the dangers posed when a child is left unsupervised, even for a short period of time”.

As well as expressing her “heartfelt sympathy” to Alex’s parents and family, Ms Anderson added: “Hopefully, this message will serve to spare other families the agony that this family has had to endure.”

Organ donation provided comfort for bereaved family of tragic Alex

The untimely death of baby Alex McCartney led to several of his organs being used to save other infants with life-threatening conditions.

After little Alex died in January 2015, his parents said they were grateful for having had a four-day period in a Belfast hospital to say their goodbyes - and that they took comfort from knowing their son had helped others through organ donation.

Speaking to the Lurgan Mail at the time, his mother Joanne Pedlow said the time Alex spent on life support allowed her to come to terms with the tragedy and the effect it would have on her family.

She said: “From the initial shock, I hung off the end of his bed for two days, crying and crying. It took that time to accept what was happening.

“The time he was in hospital gave us the time to accept and say goodbye. We’re very grateful we had that time to say goodbye.

“We were able to sit with him, nurse him and talk 
to him.”

Ms Pedlow added: “We take comfort knowing his organs can be used.”

She explained that his heart would be used to help other babies with valves transferred to two other children.

“Artificial valves don’t grow as the baby grows, but these valves will,” she said.

Her partner Stephen McCartney said: “Whenever they asked about donating his organs, there was no chance we wouldn’t have agreed.

“If it was Alex who needed the organs we’d have been so, so grateful.”

Alex had two sisters – Aimee, now 11, and Lily, three.

Paying tribute to his son, Mr McCartney said: “He was such a happy wee boy. He never cried, he just laughed and smiled.

“He was at that stage where he was able to sit up – he was very strong.

“He liked to sit and watch whatever Lily was watching on TV.”