‘Perfectly healthy’ Clare farmer dies after contracting rare killer bug

By Gordon Deegan

The widow of a 77-year old farmer who died shortly after contracting a killer bug has called for farmers to be made aware of the rare and deadly form of sepsis.

West Clare woman and mother of three, Irene Whelan, was speaking at the inquest in Ennis into the recent death of her husband, Tom Whelan.

Her husband’s jeep had veered off the road near Kilrush on the morning of August 15 last and emergency services were called to the scene.

The man had no visible injuries and paramedic, Paul Daly, told the inquest that within 10 to 15 minutes of him arriving Tom Whelan went into cardiac arrest and was unresponsive.

Daly said that at the scene Tom Whelan had earlier complained of a pain in his stomach.

Efforts to resuscitate the farmer and native of Cappa Drive, Kilrush, failed and he was pronounced dead in the ambulance near Kilmihil. An air ambulance that had been called in to bring him to hospital was stood down.

The post mortem found that Tom Whelan died from sudden heart failure due to Clostridal Sepsis or ‘gas gangrene’ in his system.

Consultant pathologist, Dr. Gabor Laskai, told the inquest that ‘gas gangrene’ if it goes untreated results in death in 100% of cases and even when treated results in death in 60% of cases.

Dr. Laskai said that ‘gas gangrene’ can be contracted through contact with soil or animal faeces.

He said: “It is a very serious and very dangerous infection.”

‘Perfectly healthy man’

Under questioning from grand-mother of four, Irene Whelan, Dr. Laskai was unable to state how exactly her late husband contracted the bug or how long it was in his system.

Irene Whelan told the inquest: “The dangers of this form of sepsis getting into the system should be highlighted more for farmers because this was a perfectly healthy man doing his work five minutes before this.”

Speaking outside the inquest after a jury had returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence, she said that the family weren’t able to see Tom’s body after he died and weren’t able to have an open coffin at his funeral because of the aggressive nature of the bug.

The body deteriorated immediately with this bacteria.

Irene Whelan stated that farmers her husband’s age wouldn’t be the best around hygiene, saying that he had farmed for around 60 years.

A beef and suckler farmer, Tom Whelan was well known in Clare farming circles.

“Tom should have been immune to every kind of germ – he was doing this all his life. The younger farmers wear gloves, the older farmers don’t.”

Irene Whelan said that Tom had no wound on his skin unless he got the gas gangrene from the scratch of a briar.

She said: “We’ll never know now anyway.”

‘Absolutely stunned’

She also said that Tom got a kick of a bull two to three weeks before his death and asked at the inquest if this was how her husband contracted the bug.

Dr. Laskai said that was possible, but stated that gas gangrene usually acts quicker than that.

Mrs. Whelan said that the family were “absolutely stunned” to get the results of the post mortem in December which showed that Tom died from the rare form of sepsis.

We couldn’t get over it. We thought it might have been a brain haemorrhage or something like that. Tom had no notion of dying. He worked every day farming.

At the inquest, Garda John Cahill said that he arrived at the crash scene and in his deposition, he said that Mr. Whelan was not in favour of going to the GP.

Garda Cahill said Tom Whelan was lying up against the side of his land cruiser and was more concerned getting the jeep back out of dyke, that he had stock to check and said that he would rest later in the day.

Garda Cahill said that he wasn’t able to explain how the jeep ended up in the ditch.

One of his three sons, Diarmuid arrived at the scene and said that he was relieved to see there was minimal damage from the car accident.

His colour was fairly pale and I put that down to the shock of the accident. His only concern was about getting the jeep out of the dyke and I told him not to be worrying about that.

Irene Whelan also stated that the post mortem found that all of her husband’s arteries were blocked.

She said: “Maybe with what happened he was spared from something far worse – he might have got a serious stroke.”