Toddler left brain damaged after meningitis missed

  • 10/08/2015
William Burton is now two years old and requires constant care
William Burton is now two years old and requires constant care

Doctors at Wellington Hospital twice missed a baby's meningitis symptoms, leaving the child severely brain damaged, a quadriplegic and unable to see or speak.

William Burton is now two years old and requires constant care.

In October 2013 the then three-month-old was rushed to Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital five days after the first of two visits to Wellington Hospital where his symptoms were missed.

"The GP didn't know what was wrong, but was concerned enough to refer him on to the emergency department," William's father Derek Burton said on the Paul Henry programme this morning.

"He had all the symptoms of meningitis apart from the red rash – fever, a strange cry, stiff neck, you know – you could go down the checklist of meningitis and tick each of these things off."

The third visit discovered the bacterial meningitis, but by then it was too late and he went into septic shock and suffered brain damage.

"His prognosis is he's going to be deaf, blind, spastic quadriplegia for the rest of his life," says Mr Burton.

His parents, Derek and Wendy Burton, have released to media the Health and Disability Commissioner ahead of its publication today.

"It can't have been too hard to foresee that something like this would have happened when they're getting junior doctors – interns at the best – to assess children," says Mr Burton.

The Capital and Coast District Health Board has unreservedly apologised for failing to pick up the meningitis and says it has now increased staffing and taken other measures to prevent a repeat.

"They've identified one of the doctors that saw my son and made mistakes, and there was a breach of procedure as well."

The family have set up a website,, to tell their son's story and to try and raise money for his care and treatment.

"We think about this constantly," says Mr Burton. "If they'd picked up the meningitis on that first night, started the antibiotics straight away, things would have been hugely different today."

If William needs life support again, Mr Burton understands it won't be offered.

"Every time he gets a cough or cold, it's bloody terrifying because we don't have that extra support in place. We've seen him on life support, and we know if that's not offered again, we will never see our son again."

Despite the mistakes, the family has no plans to take legal action against the board.

"ACC's come on board, and I think that's the best the New Zealand system has to offer. We've had no indication that a legal outcome could be negotiated."

NZN / 3 News