Campaigning mum Paula receives OBE

May 23 2022

Paula McGowan and husband Tom at her investiture at Buckingham Palace in early May

Paula McGowan and husband Tom at her investiture at Buckingham Palace in early May

THE mother of an Emersons Green teenager who died in Southmead Hospital has received an honour for her tireless work to improve the care of people with learning disabilities.

Paula McGowan was made an OBE for services to people with autism and learning disabilities in last year's Queen's Birthday Honours list. She received her medal from Prince William in May, at the first investiture to be held at Buckingham Palace since the start of the pandemic.

It came as a training programme for health and social care workers named after Paula's son Oliver is prepared for its national rollout, after a successful pilot scheme.

Paula, who attended the investiture with husband Thomas, an RAF officer, described the event as "magical".

She said: "I'd wanted Prince William to be there because of the RAF connection.

"We had quite a bit of a chat. The first thing he said was that it must be a very emotional day.

"I told him I would only accept the OBE on behalf of Oliver and those other autistic and disabled people whose voices have not been heard.

"I said I was pleased that his beautiful grandmother had just given the training Royal Assent.

"He was very smiley and very personable; he was really lovely."

Paula saw some well-known faces at the investiture, including 'Scary Spice' Melanie Brown, who was made an MBE for services to women facing domestic abuse, and Watford FC manager Roy Hodgson, made a CBE for services to football.

But she said it was the ordinary people in the room, who had achieved great things outside of their work, who had most inspired her.

Oliver, who was 18 and had a mild learning disability and high-functioning autism, died in Southmead Hospital in 2016 after an adverse reaction to an antipsychotic drug, following a partial seizure.

The drug was administered despite both Oliver and his parents telling staff he had previously had an adverse reaction.

After his death Paula and Tom fought long and hard for an independent review into his death and campaigned to change the way NHS staff communicate with people with learning disabilities.

Not only have they have succeeded in making authorities accept the need for change, they have helped to shape a culture change in training and attitudes.

Paula has worked closely with medical professionals to create and develop a new programme, called the Oliver McGowan Mandatory Training in Learning Disability and Autism, which has undergone a pilot scheme and is now set to be introduced for health and care workers across the country.

Preparing the programme has involved Paula taking part in video conferences into the middle of the night in Australia, where she and Tom are currently posted.

When she returned for her investiture, Paula also met with care and mental health minister Gillian Keegan and Baroness Sheila Hollins, who put forward the amendment in the House of Lords which made the training scheme law.

They held a feedback session with staff from St Bartholomew's Hospital in London who took part in the pilot scheme, which involved people with autism and learning disabilities in delivering the training to share their first-hand experience.

Paula said: "The St Bart's staff were very positive. They said the training had changed the whole culture, changing biases and prejudices.

"To understand and learn about neural diversity you need to learn directly from people who live it."

Paula has also met with Philippa Spicer, who is leading the implementation of the programme for Health Education England, which aims to train three million people over the next five years.

Investigations into Oliver's death by both the police and the General Medical Council are still ongoing.