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Tuesday 17 October 2006

Little sick Charlotte wins her right to life but now finds herself without a home

The parents at the centre of a case that cost the state £1.1 million in medical and legal bills have split up, leaving their child homeless. Ruth Dudley Edwards argues that we should not be angry

We all crave happy endings to stories of ordinary people struggling bravely against overwhelming odds, so the latest episode in the saga of Darren and Debbie Wyatt and their daughter Charlotte is particularly depressing.

It also has social ramifications that will leave most of us with savagely conflicting emotions.

Charlotte Wyatt was the baby so severely disabled that doctors wanted to let nature take its course and allow her to die. She could feel only pain, they said, and would be permanently unresponsive to anything around her.

Darren and Debbie were the parents who insisted she had a right to live and fought through the courts to ensure resuscitation when she needed it. They visited her every day, talked and sang to her and insisted that she reacted to their presence.

That Charlotte will be celebrating her third birthday on Saturday is testament to their determination to fight for their vulnerable daughter, who survived a viral infection earlier this year that doctors predicted would finish her off.

But how desperately sad that, according to reports, Charlotte will be celebrating that birthday on the ward at St Mary's Hospital, Portsmouth, while social workers try to find a foster home for her.

The poignancy of that image is startling. How has it come to this? Should, as some are now suggesting, Charlotte have been allowed to die after all?

To anyone who has experienced the sheer stubborn arrogance of the medical profession at its worst, the Wyatts' triumph was indeed a cause for celebration.

Charlotte was still severely impaired neurologically, reliant on oxygen and being fed through a tube, but doctors have had to admit that her life expectancy should now be measured in "months and years" rather than "weeks and months", and that she takes pleasure in the world around her.

When she was pronounced ready to go home earlier this year, with oxygen and feeding equipment, the Wyatts' victory should have been complete.

With the support of her parents and her three siblings, it was possible that Charlotte might continue to surprise.

Unfortunately, the Wyatts' marriage has collapsed and there is no home for Charlotte to go to. St Mary's Hospital is now her carer.

Many people will feel anger about this. Between medical and legal costs, the state has so far spent £1.1 million on Charlotte.

What had possessed her parents, who already had a small child, to incur the strain of having two more after Charlotte? How could they have let her down by separating?

It would be so easy to blame the parents, but it was Ann Widdecombe who, in my view, best expressed the compassionate case for the Wyatts.

"Doctors," she said, "spent the first two years of that child's life trying to end it.

"The amazing thing is that the family kept going for as long as they did." And so it is. Few people would subject themselves to the stress of taking on the medical and legal establishments.

So at the end of all this, what are we to feel? Admiration for the sheer guts of the Wyatts in fighting for their little scrap of humanity? Anger at the medical authorities who forced them into a legal battle at our expense and put them under even greater strain?

Sympathy with the nurses and doctors who have cared for Charlotte? Despair that, at the end of it all, there will be no happy family? Fear for the uncertain future of a damaged little girl?

Establishments have to be challenged and the Wyatts were brave.

We live in a world where the medical profession often seems keen to see off the weak, be they young or old. Charlotte's parents lavished enormous love on her, but couldn't stay the course. At least they tried.

They showed - for a time - the magnificence of raw parental love. In their ultimate fragility, they deserve our sympathy. As does the little girl with no home.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards