On July 4, 1994, Sophie Serrano, then 18 years old, gave birth to her first baby at a private maternity clinic on the French Riviera.
The child, whom she named Manon, had to be placed in an incubator because she had jaundice. When she was returned, the mother noticed that the baby’s hair seemed to have grown quite fast, according to the Guardian newspaper.
But the nurse said there was nothing to worry about. “That’s what happens under the lights,” she was told.
In another room in the same clinic, another new mother was having a similar concern. Her baby daughter, Mathilde, appeared to have shorter hair than when she first saw her. The child had also come from the incubator for treatment of her jaundice.
The two young mothers went home with the infants they had been given. And thus began the heart-wrenching saga of two families whose babies were accidentally swapped by a careless nurse shortly after they were born.
On Tuesday, more than 20 years later, a court in Grasse, southern France, ordered the clinic in Cannes to pay the two girls and their families more than 1.8 million euros (US$2 million) in damages, BBC News reported.
Each of the young women who had been swapped at birth will get 400,000 euros, three of the parents will get 300,000 each, and three siblings will get 60,000 each.
Although the compensation was a small fraction of the 12 million euros the families had sought, Sophie Serrano, now 38, said she was happy and relieved at the decision.
“Finally, after so many years, the error has been recognized. Now I’m cleared of everything. I’ve no reason to feel guilty for anything any more,” she told French television. “The clinic has been found responsible and I feel liberated, vindicated.”
Manon said she was also relieved. “Now I can move on. It’s finished. We have nothing more to fight for. We have done the hard bit and it’s a relief.”
For years, when they were growing up, the children were plagued with doubts, especially when playmates started teasing them because they did not look like their parents.
The parents, too, were bothered, to the point that Serrano and her husband decided to undergo DNA tests, which proved that neither of them had biological links to Manon.
The mother was filled with anger. “It was negligence, something that shouldn’t happen in a job with such responsibilities,” Serrano said. “Nobody has the right to make such mistakes.”
The family of the second girl, who came from the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion, was traced and a meeting was arranged.
“It was a pretty disturbing moment,” Manon said after a civil court hearing in December. “You find yourself in front of a woman who is biologically your mother, but who is a stranger.”
The two families decided to distance themselves from each other. “It was too difficult, so we each went our separate ways as it’s so distressing,” Sophie Serrano said. “It was the only way to find some stability again.”
A spokesperson for the clinic blamed the mix-up on a staff member who had been found to be a “chronic alcoholic”. The clinic, though their lawyers, said it would study the ruling first before deciding whether to make an appeal.
Manon said she never thought about separating from her mother. “Our relationship is more than close,” the Guardian quoted her as saying. “We were so afraid to lose one another that we realized how much love we have for each other. We don’t need the same blood to feel part of the same family.”
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