Girl's death at heart unit investigated by coroner

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The death of a two-year-old girl at a troubled heart surgery unit is to be investigated by the coroner after reports that heat from the lights in the operating theatre may have contributed to the failure of her treatment.

The death of a two-year-old girl at a troubled heart surgery unit is to be investigated by the coroner after reports that heat from the lights in the operating theatre may have contributed to the failure of her treatment.

Nicholas Gardiner, the Oxford coroner, said he would re-examine the circumstances surrounding the death in August last year of Safeena Begum, who underwent surgery at the Oxford Heart Centre.

The disclosure will add to the pressure on the unit, which is part of the John Radcliffe hospital. It is already the subject of separate inquiries into the heart surgeon, Ravi Pillai, who operated on Safeena, and into the management of the unit.

Senior specialists say the centre, regarded as Britain's best heart surgery unit in the early Nineties, fell into disarray as a result of clashes between staff and the lack of strong management. They blame a "clash of big egos" in the unit, combined with the pressure to meet National Health Service targets. "The unit has been a victim of its own success," one specialist said.

The operation on Safeena Begum, of Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, was the first long paediatric case to be conducted in a new operating theatre at the centre. Afterwards, Mr Pillai ordered the theatre staff to investigate the lights, which had seemed unusually hot.

An internal report into the girl's death, which considered the claim about the lights, was not disclosed to her parents. Hospital managers said there had been no clear evidence that heat from the lights had affected the operation.

Managers also rejected claims that surgeons unknowingly left a swab inside another heart patient, Irene Godfrey, and that they had ordered she should not be resuscitated without consulting her relatives.

The chief executive of the Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Trust - which includes the heart centre - reiterated that there was no question mark over success rates at the centre. David Highton told a news conference: "My main concern is to allay any fears the public may have about the clinical standards at the Oxford Heart Centre and try to assure them there is no cause for concern."

The Oxford Heart Centre's fall from grace began in the late Nineties. In the last four years two surgeons have been suspended (and later reinstated), a senior nurse who made allegations against one of the surgeons has been off sick for a year and the Royal College of Surgeons has withdrawn the unit's approval for the training of junior surgeons.

Two external inquiries are nearing completion - one into allegations that junior staff were left unsupervised and staff were harassed, and a second into management failures. One specialist said: "Taken together, that implies a unit in disarray."

The Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris, who worked at the John Radcliffe Hospital as a junior doctor, blamed management failings but defended Mr Pillai, whom, he said, had been subjected to "trial by media".

Mr Pillai declined to comment on the investigations.

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