An epilepsy nurse who treated Dorset teenager Gaia Pope told an inquiry the service lacked resources and admitted better communication with mental health teams could prevent future deaths.
Pope, 19, died of hypothermia after digging into weeds off a cliff or falling into bushes and may have been experiencing a seizure or mental health episode at the time.
Testifying on the third day of the Bournemouth inquest, Michelle Knight, who treated Pope for two years, told the jury his condition was complex. Pope once had 15 seizures in two days and his epilepsy became so severe that he was unable to bathe or shower without supervision.
But Knight said Pope was one of 10,000 patients in Dorset under the care of just two specialist nurses. When asked if the team had enough resources, he replied, “No.”
The jury has been told that Pope was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after claiming she was raped at the age of 16. Shortly before she disappeared, a man sent her indecent images, triggering flashbacks and anxiety from her.
Knight, who works for the University Hospitals Dorset NHS foundation trust, knew something of Pope’s mental health problems and said deteriorating mental health could exacerbate epilepsy.
But when questioned by Dorset’s Chief Medical Examiner, Rachael Griffin, Knight admitted there had been no process for her to contact the mental health teams that treated Pope at a separate trust, Dorset HealthCare, and even now no there was a system in place for this.
The nurse agreed with the coroner that a communication system would be of “great benefit” and could prevent deaths.
Knight said she was not informed when Pope entered the hospital shortly before she died. The coroner asked if this was a missed opportunity for her to have contact with Pope. She replied, “Yes.”
Jurors were told that Pope was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2013, and a year before his death, it changed the way he experienced seizures. Whereas before she had felt them approaching and was able to sit up, by the fall of 2016 she was incapacitated and filled with fear.
Earlier in the day, the inquest heard from Dr Russell Delaney, a Home Office pathologist, who told the jury that on the evening of Pope’s disappearance, on November 7, 2017, he began behaving “irrationally”. at a friend’s house in her hometown of Swanage and revealed she thought she was pregnant, although a test the day before had come back negative.
She said she broke up with her boyfriend, began acting in a “highly sexualized manner” and undressed, Delaney said. Someone convinced her to put on her clothes and she ran out into the “rotten weather” without her coat.
The pathologist said he may have dug into the deep brush where his nude body was finally discovered on Nov. 18, or fallen. An internal examination found evidence that he died of hypothermia, the court was told.
Delaney said Pope may have experienced a mental health episode and took off his clothes at the top of the cliff. It was also possible that a phenomenon called “paradoxical nudity” occurred, in which a person suffering from hypothermia begins to remove their clothes because the brain confuses the sensation of cold with that of heat.
Delaney said it was not possible to tell if he had a seizure just before he died. When asked if on the balance of probabilities she believed that epilepsy had played a role, she replied: “I don’t think it’s possible to say either way. He may have done it, he may not have done it.”
The pathologist said police told him Pope was due to see his GP at 5:00 p.m. on the day of her disappearance and said a relative called police at 6:18 p.m.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, who represents members of Pope’s family, noted that the court had been told that a member of the teenager’s family called police at 3:42 p.m. Delaney said police had not told him that.
Nor was she told that Pope would be meeting with police over the indecent images they had sent her or that her family was concerned she had disappeared without her medication, she said.
The investigation continues.
In the UK and Ireland, the Samaritans can be contacted by calling 116 123 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis support service is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.