Gagged doctor breaks silence: A paediatrician suspended on full pay from her job for 12 years speaks out for the first time, telling Liz Hunt of neglect on the wards and the loneliness of professional exile

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Dr Bridget O'Connell's darkest hour came when friends began to doubt her innocence. 'One of them, a friend for six years, said 'you must have done something, you must have killed a child or something.' Others would tell me 'just own up and it will all be over.' You see, none of them had come across anyone who'd been suspended before.'

Dr O'Connell, a consultant paediatrician, knew nothing about being suspended until one Friday in December 1982, when she was ordered to leave the King George Hospital in Ilford, Essex, and forbidden to set foot in any NHS building in the district until further notice. Her suspension was later blamed on her 'inability to relate effectively with her colleagues.'

It was almost a relief; the culmination of five years of 'harrassment and intimidation that you'd expect only in a Communist country' from managers and consultants in the Redbridge District Health Authority (now Redbridge Healthcare) as she tried to get them to acknowledge the dangerous deficiencies in child care, the out-of date and abusive practices and low staffing levels, which she believed were putting young lives at risk.

Her anxiety about one ward was so great that she would have some children admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital for the weekend when she was off-duty. Some diabetic children were 'punished' if their blood sugar levels dropped. There was no follow up of children with suspected non-accidental injuries. A token service only existed for the mentally-handicapped, she says, while some very sick babies were not being sent to special baby care units.

Now they had suspended her there would have to be an inquiry, Dr O'Connell reasoned. They would have to take her evidence seriously. She expected to be away from her patients for about six weeks.

Last week, almost 12 years after her suspension on full pay at a cost of at least pounds 500,000 to taxpayers, the case of Dr Bridget O'Connell - one of the longest NHS disputes - was finally settled with a startling climbdown by her employer, the North Thames Regional Health Authority. All allegations against the 59 year old doctor were withdrawn and disciplinary proceedings halted. She has taken early retirement but has been made an honorary consultant for the region on full pension, and received at least pounds 100,000 in damages and legal costs. The authority also accepted her refusal to sign a confidentiality clause that would prevent her speaking publicly about her case. In return she has dropped legal proceedings against them for breach of contract.

In a statement, the authority said that it '. . .recognises and greatly regrets the distress which Dr O'Connell has felt as a result of being suspended and having these allegations hanging over her head. . .It also regrets the damage this may have done to her professional standing. The authority further recognises the sincerity of Dr O'Connell's concern to maintain the highest standards of patient care.'

Dr O'Connell is not bitter. 'Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison and has no bitterness or anger. How could I be bitter about this?' But there is a sadness about the woman whose gentle appearance is at odds with the determined stand she took against predominantly male colleagues.

At the end of the month she leaves England, her home for more than 30 years, to 'work for as long as I am able' in the hospitals in Drogheda and Limerick, where she has been employed as a locum consultant on and off since 1989. Ideally, she would have liked her job at the King George Hospital back.

The authority 'regrets. . .' is scant recompense for the destruction of a career that had received Dr O'Connell's total commitment since she qualified in medicine from University College Cork, Ireland, in 1956. She has not married and her patients became the children she never had. Paediatrics was her first love and she moved to England in 1960 to work at Northampton General because she felt would learn more over here.

Her progress was halted after a consultant told her she was in the wrong speciality. 'He said paediatricians would no longer be needed. Infectious diseases had all been abolished,' she said. So she switched to pathology, becoming a Member of the Royal College of Pathologists.

But Dr O'Connell preferred clinics to laboratories. She missed seeing patients, and in 1967 was appointed senior registrar in paediatrics at The Royal London Hospital. In the years that followed she worked at Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children, Hackney, and several other hospitals in east London as part of her rotation.

In 1977 she was appointed to her first consultant's post at the King George Hospital. Within days the extent of the problems she faced were apparent. She had no registrars working with her and very few junior doctors. The director of social services warned her about standards of nursing care on the children's wards, she says, and the Community Health Council, the patient's watchdog, and the National Childbirth Trust were also aware of problems. 'I looked into it and found what they were saying was true. I felt it necessary to bring it to the attention of managers and senior nurses. Then the roof fell in,' she says.

The first four years of her suspension were the loneliest. Dr O'Connell was advised by legal and professional bodies not to speak about her case to anyone. She spent some time preparing her case should she be asked to defend her actions at a promised inquiry. No inquiry ever took place.

Then in 1986 Dr Wendy Savage, a consultant gynaecologist at The Royal London Hospital, and friend of Dr O'Connell's, was suspended for 15 months after clashing with her colleagues. Dr Savage's ultimate success and reinstatement received wide publicity. Dr O'Connell's case was taken up again, although eight more years on a salary of almost pounds 50,000 passed before her name was cleared.

The Department of Health has now promised an overhaul of disciplinary procedures. From her new base in Ireland Dr O'Connell says she will continue to promote the cases of colleagues in similar positions. 'What I wanted was to be vindicated and my integrity established. I really don't think it should have taken 12 years.'

A spokesman for Redbridge Health Care said yesterday that Dr O'Connell's allegations of dangerous clinical practice and abuse were 'completely without foundation.'

He added: 'She made similar allegations in 1981/82 which were fully and independently investigated by Professor Wood from Great Ormond Street Hospital. . .neither the independent investigators nor the Regional Medical Officer found any substance whatever in the allegations although there was evidence of poor relationships.'

(Photograph omitted)

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