In May and July 2018, two British women died of catastrophic herpes infections shortly after delivering babies via Caesarean section in facilities overseen by the East Kent Hospitals Trust. Their grieving families were told nothing connected them.
But an investigation conducted by the BBC has learned otherwise—the women shared a surgeon who may have unknowingly planted the herpes virus directly into their uteruses after he made the birth incision.
On May 3, 2018, Kimberly Sampson, a 29-year-old mother who worked as a barber, went into labor. It began normally but quickly slowed down, causing her unborn child to become lodged in her pelvis, leading to an emergency Caesarean. She was injured during the operation and given a blood transfusion, according to the BBC report. Despite being in immense pain with difficulty walking, she and her newborn son were discharged. They went to her mother’s home, where Kimberly resided.
A few days later, her mother, Yvette Sampson, says her daughter was in unbearable pain and rushed by ambulance to the hospital, where she was diagnosed inaccurately with bacterial sepsis. When antibiotics failed to treat the condition, she went back under the knife as doctors performed exploratory surgery to identify the infection. In the meantime, records show she was treated with the common herpes infection drug Aciclovir.
A few days later, doctors at Kings College Hospital in London diagnosed the problem: catastrophic herpes infection. She died on May 22, 2018, while in intensive care.
Two months later, the BBC reports that 32-year-old Samantha Mulcahy, a nurse, died from the same condition after giving birth by C-Section at a hospital also part of the East Kent Hospital Trust. The same surgeon who operated on Kimberly Sampson, who the BBC has not named, performed the surgery.
Mulcahy had gone into labor a month before her due date. The hospital she was taken to was governed by the same regional trust as the one where Sampson gave birth; both hospitals shared the same doctors, under Britain’s National Health System.
Mulcahy’s labor also started going wrong and after 17 hours with no progress, her daughter was delivered via C-section. Her blood pressure seemed in line with pre-eclampsia symptoms, so doctors kept her in the hospital for observation. Her blood pressure improved but her body started to swell, according to medical records seen by the BBC. Like Sampson, doctors misdiagnosed her with bacterial sepsis. Again, the antibiotics used to treat that disorder failed to work. Four days later, her organs started to shut down and she died. Her autopsy report says she died from a “disseminated herpes simplex type 1 infection” or a catastrophic herpes infection.
Both women’s babies survived and neither were infected by the virus. But in both cases, the new moms had never had herpes of any kind before. Nearly 70 percent of the adult population has been infected by either genital herpes or cold sores by the time they are 25, according to the Herpes Viruses Association cited in the BBC report. Primary herpes infections as adults can be far more severe than contracting the virus as a youngster. Because the fatal infection was the first time they were exposed to the virus, they had no antibodies to fight it.
Though the families of both women felt there was something more to their tragedies, they were told a year after the deaths that there would be no investigation because there was “no connection” between the two cases. Both were told the new moms almost certainly contracted herpes prior to their admission to hospital.
BBC came onto the story when it was investigating a wrongful death of an infant named Harry Richford, who died under the care of the East Kent Hospital Trust maternity ward in 2019. Reporters found a number of preventable infant deaths in their research, but they also ran into the stories of Sampson and Mulcahy, which they started to investigate in 2021.
Their research showed that indeed Britain’s health authority, Public Health England, had looked at the two women’s records for a source of the herpes viruses that killed them. Sampson’s family had petitioned the group for access to the records, which did in fact show a connection—and an email chain that showed efforts to determine if the herpes viruses were genetically identical in the two fatalities, even though the families had been told there were none.
One email seen by the BBC showed that the trust eventually learned that the same midwife and same surgeon had carried out both C-sections. The private lab Micropathology was even commissioned to sequence the viruses. In a communique from the lab, one technician asked for a mouth swab or lesion swab from the suspected surgeon because the cases looked like “surgical contamination.”
The trust did not provide the surgeon’s sample, the BBC reports. And it did not share the suspicion of contamination with either family or that some parts of the virus were identical. “It seems the most likely explanation [is] that these strains are probably the same,” the lab wrote in an email dated October 2018. “Which also adds weight to the idea that these two women were infected with the same virus.”
The BBC asked sexual health consultant Peter Greenhouse to study the documentation from both deaths. He concluded that the most likely scenario is that the surgeon had a herpetic whitlow, or herpes infection on his finger. Though he would have been wearing gloves in both surgeries, even a small pinprick hole could have been enough to transmit the virus into the women.
“The only common source here, in a hospital-based scenario, would be the surgeon who performed the operations,” Greenhouse told the BBC, surmising that the surgeon “directly seeded the herpes into the abdomen of the women.” Had there been any other form of contact, the women would have had lesions—either as cold sores or genital herpes. Neither did, according to their autopsy reports seen by the BBC. More than likely, the surgeon had no idea he even had it. “Many of these will occur without any obvious signs, or they’ll be so minuscule that you can’t identify them,” he said. The BBC interviewed four other health experts who agreed.
When asked of the possibility, the East Kent Hospitals Trust told the BBC in a statement that the surgeon took part in a “verbal” heath check and said he had no history of herpes infection and no hand lesions. But he was not examined or tested for the virus.
“East Kent Hospitals sought specialist support from Public Health England (PHE) following the tragic deaths of Kimberley and Samantha in 2018,” the trust statement says. “The surgeon who performed both Caesarean sections did not have any hand lesions that could have caused infection, or any history of the virus. Kimberley and Samantha’s treatment was based on the different symptoms showed during their illness. Our thoughts are with their families, and we will do all we can to answer their concerns.”
The families are now petitioning the coroner to open inquiries into their deaths.