‘It’s like being in prison’: Mum’s life ‘ruined’ by an operation she didn’t need to have

A mum has been left with a lifetime of chronic pain following a spine operation she didn’t need to have.

Donna Johnstone, 48, said at times she felt like driving her car off a cliff after struggling to cope with the severity of the pain.

She is no longer able to work for her family’s business, rarely leaves the house, and even missed her eldest daughter’s university graduation.

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The mum-of-two from Ashton-in-Makerfield was first referred to the Walton Center in Liverpool after presenting at her GP with ‘niggling’ arm and neck pain in 2013.

A surgeon at the NHS hospital, which specializes in the management of neurological conditions, advised she should have surgery to remove a spinal cord disc in her neck after scans.

Donna Johnstone with her dad

But since the operation, she has been left with daily excruciating pain which has prevented her living a normal life, and can only be eased with a strong cocktail of medication.

Following a trial at Manchester Civil Court, a judge ruled that “no reasonable body of neurosurgeons would have offered surgery” at the stage the surgeon at the Walton Center did.

Judge Claire Evens said if Ms Johnstone had been ‘appropriately advised,’ she would not have progressed to surgery.

She also agreed with two neurological experts that the mum’s pain has been “exacerbated” by the surgery and subsequent surgeries since 2013.

The Walton Center has since been ordered to pay Donna a six-figure compensation settlement following the trial last May.

They have also issued a formal apology to the mum-of-two, admitting they ‘let her down.’

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Donna believes she developed the original pain following years of manufacturing electrical cables in the family business, Roga Cables.

She had been working full-time up until the day of the operation on August 27, 2013, but since the surgery – Donna has never been able to return to work.

Donna told the Manchester Evening News the compensation payment is ‘irrelevant’ to her, and will only be used to help manage the chronic pain she faces on a daily basis.

She says she was led to believe the operation was her only treatment option.

“I have lost my whole identity as a busy working mum,” she said.

“My family have also lost the wife and mother I used to be and now it is they who have to care for me.

“I can’t go on holiday as it makes it even harder to manage the pain in different accommodation.

“It’s like being trapped in a prison with no prospect of ever being released.”

The Walton Center in Liverpool

The mum believes the pain she had originally been feeling in her arm and neck was the result of spending around eight hours a day on a machine – where her head was at a ’tilt.’

She went to see her GP who sent her for some physiotherapy, before she was recommended by her physio to see a neurosurgeon.

An MRI scan revealed a problem with her spinal cord disc in her neck, and Donna was placed under the care of a surgeon at the Walton Center who recommended the surgery.

“I was very reluctant about surgery because my brother had been left paralyzed after having an operation,” Donna said.

Her sibling had been left with catastrophic injuries after being struck by a drunk driver in 2005, and now requires 24-hour care from Donna’s parents.

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“The thought of having surgery on my neck was terrifying. I was very concerned,” she added.

“I was working up until the day of the surgery. The pain hadn’t stopped me working, it was just troubling me.

“I finished work on that Friday and haven’t been back since.”

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The operation passed without any issues, but three weeks after the surgery, Donna said she developed a ‘ridiculous’ pain in her neck.

As the pain got “worse” and “worse,” she went back for another appointment at the Walton Center, where the mum claims she was told the pain needed to settle.

“It got to a point where I couldn’t bear the pain I was in,” she said.

“They thought I might have developed an infection so I was given months of antibiotics. It wasn’t a nice time. I was very poorly and lost a lot of weight.

“I didn’t improve and the pain was still getting worse.

“I was taking a ridiculous amount of pain medication. I just got to a point where I thought what is the point in all of this.”

Donna with her husband Neil

Donna said she was discharged from the Walton Center and referred to a private doctor, who informed her she needed to undergo another operation.

Since the original surgery in 2013, the mum has had to have two more operations in 2016 and 2019.

“After the final surgery I did actually get to a good position because I was having infusions every 12 weeks for the pain,” she said.

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“I hadn’t taken morphine in months and all my medications were down.

“Then unfortunately came covid and I had to miss a lot of them. I had gone over 12 months without an infusion because of covid.

“Unless you have these injections every three months you have to start the process again so it’s been very difficult.”

Donna has now been able to restart the three-monthly infusions, which she hopes will start to control the pain again.

But two neurological experts agreed in court that she will most likely suffer with daily pain for the rest of her life.

Donna Johnstone with her niece

“If I am having a bad day I won’t do anything,” she said.

“If I wake up and think I am having a good day I do a few things but then the day after you pay for it.

“You feel guilty when you’ve worked all your life. I even feel bad that I am not bringing money into the house.

“It just degrades you and strips you of your dignity.”

Jodie Miller, a specialist medical negligence solicitor at law firm JMW represented Donna throughout her court proceedings against the Walton Centre.

She said: “Donna’s a very strong lady but her strength has been tested to its limits by this case.

“Despite her poor physical health she dedicated her fight not for herself, but for the other patients she is seeking to protect.”

The Walton Center NHS Foundation Trust told the Manchester Evening News they had nothing further to add, but did confirm the surgeon in question was still working at the hospital.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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