NHS staff fat-shamed 38-stone mother-of-four

NHS staff fat-shamed 38-stone mother-of-four who was ‘terrified’ to return to hospital for C-section and died a month after op, her mother tells inquest

  • Shelley Harlow died on May 25, 2022 after having a C-section operation in April
  • The 38-stone mother was ‘fat-shamed’ by hospital staff, an inquest was told

NHS staff fat-shamed a 38-stone mother-of-four who was ‘terrified’ to return to hospital before she died just a month after undergoing a C-section operation, an inquest has heard.   

Shelley Harlow died in the early hours of May 25 at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) in Margate, Kent after suffering a blood clot following a caesarean operation the previous month.

Her mother Wendy Pearson has now told an inquest that her ‘kind’ daughter had been ‘absolutely terrified’ to go back to hospital after previously being ‘fat shamed’ by NHS staff who said she would need a ‘big room’ and a ‘special bed’. 

The 38-year-old was declared dead at 2.26am on May 25 last year, after undergoing five different surgeries following a C-section operation in April 2022, having previously been discharged from hospital less than two weeks earlier on May 16 2022. 

Ms Harlow’s grieving mother told the inquest, via video link: ‘I feel that Shelley was fat-shamed a lot. She told me that on the day she went into hospital she was asked “what are you doing here?”

Shelley Harlow died in the early hours of May 25 at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) in Margate, Kent


Shelley Harlow’s (pictured) mother said the 38-year-old had been ‘fat-shamed’ by NHS staff

‘She told them she was coming in for a C-section and a member of staff told her that they would have to cancel a lot of other C-sections now because of how long hers would take,’ the bereaved mother told the inquest hearing. 

‘Shelley kept telling me they hadn’t made a plan and she was very frightened of having the C-section. I think being told that she’d have to have a special room and a big bed because of her weight made her feel even more frightened.

‘I want to make people aware that being overweight is like an addiction – it’s the same as cigarettes or drinking. There’s no use telling people to go on a diet if they don’t work. I think people need to realise that.’

Ms Harlow’s death came after the mother taken was off an anticoagulant medication called heparin, which she was prescribed following a miscarriage in 2021 to stop her experiencing blood clots. 

After developing sepsis from the April 2022 C-section, Ms Harlow was forced to spend several weeks in hospital without her newborn baby, during which period she underwent five surgeries.

In each case, doctors stopped the blood-thinning heparin medication before Ms Harlow’s surgeries to prevent the 38-year-old bleeding out.

She was later discharged on May 16. A clerical error, however, saw heparin omitted from the list of prescribed medications, the inquest was told.

In the early hours of May 25, 2022, just nine days after leaving hospital, Ms Harlow then stopped breathing – at which point her partner called 999 and gave her CPR.

Air ambulances arrived and paramedics used a defibrillator before Ms Harlow was declared dead at 2.26am.

Coroner Sarah Clarke recorded a conclusion of natural causes and gave Shelley’s cause of death as a massive pulmonary thromboembolism.

The 38-year-old mother weighed 38 stone and five pounds at the time of her death 

Hospital staff told Shelley Harlow she would need a ‘big room’ and a ‘special bed,’ an inquest heard

Supporting factors included her recent third-trimester delivery, caesarean section, post-operative sepsis and morbid obesity.

She said: ‘The care she was provided while in hospital was of a high standard.

‘She had a total of five surgeries and her heparin was stopped several times. The time when things could have been different was at her discharge.

‘I am sure that all the clinicians have reflected on their involvement in Shelley’s care.

‘We can’t blame Shelley for wanting to go home and be with her baby. If the information on her discharge form had been clear she may have continued taking the heparin.

‘But I must say this was not causative, as even with the heparin she was still at risk and she did not show symptoms before the night of her death.

‘I struggled with the decision on whether to conclude natural causes or to provide a narrative conclusion in this case.

‘Her mother described how Shelley was tormented by comments about her weight and how she felt fat-shamed.

‘All that is left is to extend my condolences to her mum, Wendy, and all of Shelley’s family.’

Following the inquest, Mrs Pearson said her daughter was a stay-at-home mother at the time of her death.

The ‘kind’ mother would care for her friend’s daughter too, when the friend was struggling to do so herself.

Shelley Harlow’s mother said ‘being overweight is like an addiction – it’s the same as cigarettes or drinking’

Ms Pearson said: ‘She was kind, she would do anything for anybody.

‘She had a friend as well, who had got a little girl. She would look after her, Shelley would take the little girl around hers and look after her.

‘She would bath her, wash her, make sure she was alright. She did have a great sense of humour, she would make you laugh, she was funny.’

East Kent Hospitals Trust declined to comment on Wendy’s concerns that Shelley was fat-shamed and tormented by comments from QEQM staff.

The Trust’s chief nursing officer Jane Dickson said: ‘The death of Shelley following the birth of her baby is devastating for her family and we would like to extend our heartfelt sympathies to her family.

‘The circumstances leading to Shelley’s death were immediately and thoroughly investigated. An independent safety investigation was conducted by the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch (HSIB).

‘We have implemented all the recommendations made in the report and the findings of these investigations were shared with Shelley’s family and HM Coroner.

‘We now identify at-risk women earlier on during their pregnancy to offer them tailored advice and planning about conditions which may affect their labour and delivery, as well as ensuring digital information is shared consistently with our partner organisations so that all healthcare professions have a full picture of a women’s health.’

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