Exclusive: 'I wasn't one of the girls, but I wasn't one of the men, either': Helena Daly, the hospital doctor sacked for 'rudeness', talks to Jenny Cuffe

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Indy Lifestyle Online
YOU can see at a glance why Dr Helena Daly put so many noses out of joint when she arrived at Treliske Hospital in Truro, Cornwall. She's young as consultants go, perhaps in her late thirties. 'I'm not telling anyone my age. It's the only thing about me that hasn't been exposed over the last ten months.'

She is single, unrepentantly slim, tanned, with auburn hair and glittering eyes - characteristics perhaps not guaranteed to endear her to a workforce of predominantly middle-aged women.

As she grudgingly opens the front door of her modern house in a Truro cul-de-sac, I get the impression of a very private person, who would rather be seen in a professional setting than here in her own home, and would be more at ease discussing my blood count than her problems. She seems at a loss without her patients to care for, though the greeting cards on every shelf and window-sill proclaim their gratitude and support.

Dr Daly was always a high-flier. After training at University College Dublin she left Ireland to become a senior registrar in Bristol, and in July 1986 she went to Cornwall as a consultant haematologist, where she struck up a friendship with the hospital's chief executive, John Saxby.

The atmosphere at Treliske was much more parochial than she'd been used to. 'I can remember saying jokingly, 'My God, if I had seams in my tights they'd be discussing it at lunch]' John told me once not to dress so smartly at work because it was causing so much comment, so the next day I came in dressed as a frump, with a brown knitted suit which would have been very nice 10 years ago, and brown shoes. When I asked him if that was better he said: 'The scarf's too chic', so you see I couldn't win.'

On another occasion, during a summer heatwave, nurses complained that she had bare legs while they were made to wear tights. It was as if, she says, because she was a woman, they couldn't accept the fact that she was in a senior position and she certainly didn't go out of her way to win them over. 'I didn't sit in the sister's office having cups of coffee. And perhaps it annoyed them when John knocked on the door and asked me to lunch. I wasn't one of the girls, but I wasn't one of the men, either.'

In 1990, Dr Daly says her relationship with John Saxby turned into an affair (which he denies), but because he was married they were anxious to keep it secret. In January 1992, she took over as head of haematology and oncology at Treliske. Junior staff - secretaries, lab technicians and nurses - were now beginning to complain to management about her rudeness, and she was later to discover that Mr Saxby and other managers asked staff to keep notes about her conduct. Things came to a head when a new secretary said Dr Daly's aggressive attitude was making her ill.

'My demotion was a very precipitous act on a Friday. I got a phone call from John asking me to come to his office at four o'clock. We usually met then for coffee and that's what I thought it was about. But when I went in he told me he was demoting me because he wasn't prepared to allow a manager to speak in the way I allegedly had. I was just stunned. John was visibly upset.

'It was grossly unreasonable to remove a head of department, without any warning, apparently because she'd upset a secretary. Some of my colleagues thought I should take out a grievance procedure against him. It sounds pathetic, I know, but I didn't want to upset him . . . after all this was someone I loved. I'm a very loyal person, very slow to see faults in the people I care about.'

Six weeks later, Dr Daly was suspended by the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust on grounds of personal misconduct. 'On that day my personal and professional life just stopped.' There were 23 charges - referring to rudeness, aggressive attitude and inconsistency in handling staff. Her alleged offences include describing a member of staff as 'lacking brain cells' and shouting at nurses in the clinic.

'I recall all but two of the instances clearly,' she says. 'The way they were drafted subsequently by the barrister put them in much more serious language but when we got down to discuss them at the hearing they were relatively minor events.' She denies that she was unpleasant and high-handed with staff and says she was only asking them to do their jobs. 'There was an unwillingness here to do anything for me, but of course it wasn't for me, it was for the patients and they're the ones who were affected.'

Her patients confirm this picture of a perfectionist demanding the very best on their behalf: she has received more than 300 letters of support. A group of them met me at the home of Pam Smith, a Cornish woman who has been fighting cancer and who reveres the consultant. 'I don't believe she was rude,' she says. 'I believe she was a very confident lady. She knew how to do her job and I'm afraid the people around her weren't at the same level as her. It's our lives that are at risk so she wanted that job done properly.'

Dr Daly arranged treatment at Glasgow for Chrissy Palombo's 12-year-old son Daniel, who has a tumour. 'Maybe she was just too expensive,' Chrissy says. 'She wanted the best treatment for her patients at whatever the cost.'

Dick Leviseur, a retired squadron leader now cured of lymphoma, says the affair is about bad management. 'It surprises me that management is so inept that a doctor can complain about the staff she has over a number of years and not be supported by management.'

These patients gave evidence at the 20-day disciplinary hearing, presided over by two members of the hospital trust and two non-voting independent advisers.

In addition to her patients, Dr Daly was supported by eight other consultants, four junior doctors, a number of nurses and one secretary. Speaking against her were a larger number of nurses, technical and clerical staff, three consultants, three junior doctors and four managers. One of these was Mr Saxby, who also denied in evidence that he had ever had an improper relationship with her: they were close friends, he said, but there had not been an affair. Mr Saxby said that he had regularly visited Dr Daly at her home, to counsel her about her difficulties at work. Since the hearing ended Mr Saxby has been unavailable for comment on the case.

Another witness for Dr Daly was Sue Maddock, a management consultant researching into gender relations in the public sector. She believes that Dr Daly acted no differently from many hospital doctors, and if she had been a man no-one would have thought to criticise her.

'The sort of complaints that were brought against Dr Daly are extremely common among support staff, particularly in hospitals. Junior doctors who are women notice very quickly that nurses say things like, 'Oh, don't expect me to clear up after you,' when the next day a young male house officer goes in and they're very willing to make cups of tea for him and generally be very supportive. I think that's an indication of how very powerful the gender culture in hospitals is.'

It's not an interpretation that Helena Daly finds easy to accept. She told me: 'A couple of years back, I'd never have wanted to admit it. I've always been in a male-dominated profession and I think that to say it's because you're a woman is whingeing in a way. But I think now I have to admit that women aren't always liked by women, and that's certainly true in my case, though not all the staff who complained about me were women.'

The Hospitals Trust was not convinced by the arguments in Dr Daly's favour. Last week it announced that the 23 allegations of personal misconduct were found to be proved, saying: 'Taken individually many of the complaints or allegations could in themselves seem minor. However, corroborating evidence led to the conclusion that these were examples of a pattern of behaviour which in its cumulative effect led the department to the verge of collapse, affected the health of employees and led to resignations and staff moving or asking to be moved to alternative positions.'

Helena Daly is devastated by the decision. She is summoning the emotional energy to make an internal appeal. 'I feel I've been pre-judged. It's as if we never went along to any hearing and they never heard anything I said.' She is particularly wounded by the actions of John Saxby, who has since moved to become manager of a hospital in the North-east. 'I'd told him everything that went on and he was the one person who could have helped me at the hearing. But he gave evidence against me. And he sat there a few feet away from me and denied that we'd been lovers. He said that for four years he'd been counselling me at my home on a regular basis. I don't cry easily but at that moment I was in tears.'

(Photographs omitted)