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Nikola's story a family's search for the truth

Four-year-old Nikola Stekovic has recently learnt to walk.

As he plays in the lounge room of the family home in Queanbeyan his adorable smile draws all the attention in the room, but it is obvious his speech is limited.

The boy - with his delayed speech and motor skills - is at the centre of a legal case launched against Canberra Hospital, the territory's largest health provider, which last financial year paid more than $10 million to patients injured by medical negligence.

Documents filed in the ACT Supreme Court allege Nikola's brain was damaged at the hospital after a forceps birth, partly because hospital staff wrongly thought he had an inoperable brain tumour and they seemed to have no idea of the haemorrhage he had experienced.

''We couldn't find out the truth in Canberra Hospital,'' his mother Snezana said. ''We don't want anyone else to have to go through this. They practically turned their back on Nikola.''

Ms Stekovic said Nikola developed hydrocephalus, an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid on the brain, and a brain injury after birth. He now has a range of permanent disabilities and has had 11 surgical procedures related to his brain injury.

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It is alleged staff failed to organise an urgent neurosurgical review of the baby boy and did not drain the bleeding on his brain quickly enough. This task, the statement of claim says, was done two days after his birth when he was transferred to the Children's Hospital at Westmead, where he was correctly diagnosed.

A Canberra Hospital spokeswoman said hospital management could not comment on this specific matter because of the court case. She said ACT Health had a rigorous process for management and investigations of clinical incidents and this process included open disclosure with families and thorough investigation of incidents.

When asked how many times the hospital had been sued for birthing incidents in the past year, she said there had been none that had led to a civil claim.

The Stekovics' lawyer, Anna Walsh from Maurice Blackburn, said her firm had seen a growing number of inquiries about the mismanagement of labour and birth, mainly in the public hospital system.

''These cases can result in babies having serious disabilities,'' she said.

''We have also seen [an] increase in allegations of poor surgical care [for all ages]. Not every poor outcome is the result of the negligence so each case is thoroughly investigated and all circumstances are taken into account before we proceed with a case."

Claims of mistakes made during births are more common than many people may think.

The vice-president of Friends of Brain Injured Children ACT, Libby Steeper, said a large proportion of the children in her 40-strong support group were brain damaged because of alleged medical negligence at hospitals. In at least two cases, she said, it was claimed the resuscitation trolleys were not functioning. ''When a newborn baby is not breathing, every minute counts,'' she said.

She said some families were suing and others had received large compensation payments. ''The courts recognise the huge costs of raising a child with such a disability and the intensive therapy needed to reduce it, usually over a lifetime.''