Babies' hearts were used in research

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A HOSPITAL at the centre of a scandal over failed heart operations removed organs from some of the children who did not survive and kept them for research without telling their parents. A total of about 170 hearts are thought to have been removed and kept after unsuccessful operations at the Bristol Royal Infirmary between 1983 and 1995.

An investigation into children's heart surgery at the hospital found seriously high rates of mortality and brain damage. Two surgeons, James Wisheart and Janardan Dhasmana, and John Roylance, who ran the Bristol United Healthcare Trust, were found guilty of serious professional misconduct.

With a public inquiry due to start next month, solicitors for the parents of the children said they were very surprised not to have learnt of the practice of keeping organs until now, but they understood it was happening nationwide. The organs were kept after post-mortem examinations.

Machaela Willis, chair of the Bristol Children's Heart Action Group, said the disclosure would cause great distress: "It was known that hearts had been retained without knowledge or consent in isolated cases.

"But the trust had not made us aware until now that hearts had been retained systematically. The shock and sorrow this disclosure will cause to parents is incalculable."

The trust has asked the action group, which represents around 300 families largely from the South-west and South Wales, for help in contacting families concerned.

Laurence Vick, leading solicitor for the group at the inquiry due to open on 16 March, said given events at the hospital and the scandal surrounding it, it was surprising it had taken so long for this to emerge.

Mervyn Fudge, another solicitor, added: "We understand it is, or has been, accepted practice in the NHS to remove tissue or organs during the post-mortem for research purposes without obtaining express consent."

Helen Rickard, 32, of Bristol, said she believed she was the first parent to discover that her child's heart had been kept by the hospital. Her daughter Samantha died aged 11 months after an operation in February 1992. It was only in May 1996, when she was examining Samantha's medical records, that she learnt the truth: "It was a great shock and I was very distressed," she said. The hospital apologised and returned the organ, which she now proposes to donate for research.

A spokeswoman for the Bristol Royal Infirmary said the matter would be raised at the public inquiry. "We acknowledge there will be distress and we regret that." But she said the majority of post-mortem examinations were requested by the coroner and there was no legal requirement for parents' consent to be obtained.

Nicholas Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon, who has constituents affected by the Bristol scandal, said that he would ask Frank Dobson, Secretary of State for Health, for a review of laws governing the removal of organs. "The tragic story of babies' deaths at the Bristol Royal Infirmary just gets worse and worse. It's extremely upsetting for the parents of babies who died," he said.

Dr Roylance began an appeal yesterday before the judicial committee of the Privy Council against being struck off.

Robert Francis QC, for Dr Roylance, said Sir Donald Irvine, chairman of the General Medical Council which conducted the disciplinary hearing, failed to disclose that his own grandchild was being treated for a heart condition.