Stillbirth tragedy: Couple believe osteopath treatment killed their unborn baby

A couple who believe osteopath treatment killed their unborn baby have for six years been fighting government agencies and it’s left them feeling confused and powerless.

Top specialists say it’s possible the Auckland parents are right, yet five investigations by New Zealand’s health watchdog, the Health and Disability Commission (HDC), and ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation) have failed to produce clear answers.

Meanwhile, parents Josh Garry and Vicky Griffiths told the Herald on Sunday they felt tormented every day because they believed with all their hearts that the death of their son, Ryker, could have been avoided.

They were frustrated at government agencies for failing to protect other pregnant women from “dangerous” osteopath treatment, Garry said.

“We want this fight over and a chance to move on to learn about life without that cloud over us, but I am not the kind of person to quit to achieve that, this is too important for everyone’s sake to let it go. I couldn’t live with myself if it happened again to someone else,” Garry said.

Baby Ryker Izac Phillip Garry should be celebrating his seventh birthday next year with his 4-year-old brother, Benji, and loving parents. Izac was Garry’s name before he was adopted and Phillip is Griffiths’ dad’s name.

“Our mental wellbeing has been smacked for six on many occasions, I look forward to the day I can hold my head up and tell Ryker that he gave us strength and belief,” Garry said.

Their heartbreak began on February 25, 2015. That was the day Griffiths, then 30 weeks pregnant, received osteopath treatment in Auckland after being referred to the service for sciatica in her right hip.

As noted in HDC records seen by the Herald on Sunday, the osteopath asked Griffiths if she had any other pregnancy-related symptoms, to which she said heartburn. In response, the osteopath pushed down on her abdomen and diaphragm with his fingers and thumbs, records showed.

Garry said the love of his life was in pain during that treatment, despite not showing it, and found it very intrusive.

“He diagnosed a tight colon that required stretching by manipulation,” the HDC report said.

Two days later, a pre-booked growth scan showed Ryker’s heart wasn’t beating any more. It was devastating because just two days before the osteopath treatment another scan showed he was healthy, Garry said.

Griffiths was forced to give birth to her dead baby on March 1.

One source told the Herald on Sunday she understood the osteopath – who cannot be named for legal reasons – specialised in sports and left his job and the country a few months after this couple’s stillbirth.

Four months after the birth, the couple met the then head of Auckland City Hospital’s maternity unit, Dr Tony Baird, to determine, review and release the post-mortem findings.

Lawyer Paul Barrowclough was present that day and recorded the minutes of that meeting, which the Herald on Sunday has seen.

It was confirmed by Baird that the cause of Ryker’s death was the anterior placental abruption which he said was also referred to as an “incidental antepartum haemorrhage”, the minutes said.

When Barrowclough pushed, Baird said trauma such as osteopath treatment could not be excluded as a cause of the abruption, the minutes recorded.

The couple then made a complaint with HDC urging the agency to investigate their case. After several months HDC found “no evidence that the treatment provided to [Griffiths] by [the osteopath] caused the placental abruption”.

Documents showed HDC had sought only a response from the osteopath himself and an independent GP who advised on the causes of placental abruption. In that first investigation, HDC did not approach a specialist with more extensive knowledge on the condition or anyone else, documents showed.

The osteopath defended his treatment to HDC saying he believed it would have taken a lot of force to detach or damage a placenta, such as a car accident, a severe blow, or a fall on to the abdomen.

“He finds it difficult to understand how a placental abruption would have occurred as a result of his treatment, and believes it is sadly coincidental that you lost,” the HDC report said of the osteopath.

He also said in the report: “every patient has their right to ask questions, stop treatment or raise concerns with the consultation, which he makes clear before a treatment”.

Garry said he was angry because the link between the osteopath treatment and the death of his son still couldn’t be ruled out, and he wanted to ensure changes were made to the practice to ensure, even if the risk was low, no other person had to experience the heartbreak his family had.

They weren’t getting answers and sought a second opinion from Southland obstetrician Dr Norman MacLean, Garry said.

MacLean not only echoed Baird’s comments about the osteopath treatment being a possible cause of death but also said in an email, seen by the Herald on Sunday: “It would be my opinion as an experienced specialist obstetrician that an osteopath should not examine the abdomen of a mother in advanced pregnancy; it is utterly inappropriate and should be outside their scope of practice. The osteopath has attempted to absolve himself from the blame of the complication but this is not his role.”

HDC reopened the case but, Garry said, it was dropped suddenly after a heated phone call between him and an HDC assessor named Joshua Allum.

The Herald on Sunday listened to a recording of that call and read an internal complaint by Allum to his superiors, released to Garry under the Official Information Act.

Allum claimed that Garry told him that “[Allum and HDC] had taken the side of a murderer” but at no point on the recording did Garry say this, records showed.

Garry said at one point he knew it wasn’t Allum’s fault and he wasn’t looking to blame anyone, his family just wanted answers.

After Garry found out about the complaint made against him, he raised it with a different HDC staffer. He understands the documented transcript of the phone call was corrected by HDC but doesn’t know if any further action was taken.

“They made me feel worthless. I was treated like a case number, not a person. I’m a father grieving the death of my son and desperate for answers, that was all,” Garry said.

The Herald on Sunday put questions to HDC about this and they did not respond directly.

Instead, a spokeswoman said: “HDC carefully considered this case over a number of years, including reviewing our original findings and seeking further independent advice to determine that the treatment was provided with reasonable care and skill and in a manner that complied with professional and other relevant standards.”

The agency extended its sympathies to the family for their tragic loss and was sorry it was not the outcome they hoped for, the spokeswoman said.

ACC also investigated the case twice. On the second review, ACC spoke with two independent osteopaths, its own obstetrician gynaecologist and Jane Zuccolo, a perinatal pathologist.

Years after the stillbirth, Zuccolo suggested the post-mortem results were inaccurate. In the findings released in March 2021, “I find nothing to confidently persuade me in the pathology that this baby has died as a result of placental abruption/significant acute retroplacental haemorrhage.”

“A marginal haemorrhage was observed that had extended beneath the
decidua for a short distance with localised marginal compression of the placental
parenchyma. Whether this was sufficient to cause the fetal death I cannot say.”

The Herald on Sunday asked ACC why MacLean and Baird’s advice was not sought or included in its formal reports and if the osteopath treatment could be ruled out as a cause of death. They could not directly answer.

Instead, a spokesman said: “ACC can only provide cover for a treatment injury where a physical injury has been caused by the treatment. In this case, we sought external clinical advice from experts in relevant fields to help inform our decision, and their advice did not support osteopathic treatment as having caused the placental abruption. As such, we could not accept cover.

“The family chose to have this decision independently reviewed, and our decline decision was upheld.However, we can always reconsider a claim decision based on new medical information. If the family has information they believe should be considered, we encourage them to get in touch.”

Garry said: “I hope one day Ryker will look down on his mummy and daddy and know they never gave up on him, and because of him and because of this, he alone created a conversation that inspired change for the better for so many people.”

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