Birth pioneer cleared of misconduct charge

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The Independent Online
AN EXPERT on foetal medicine was yesterday cleared of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council.

He had been accused of making flippant and offensive remarks to a woman patient whose unborn twins died in an operation he carried out.

But Professor Kyprianos Nicolaides told the GMC that he was in tears after the babies' death which he called a "human tragedy" for both their mother Jennifer Sabin and for himself.

Speaking after the hearing, Professor Nicolaides said: "I am immensely relieved that my name has been cleared of these charges. I am deeply saddened by the fact that I was not able to save the babies of Mrs Sabin."

Mrs Sabin was undergoing keyhole laser surgery for the rare and usually fatal "twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome", a procedure developed by Professor Nicolaides and carried out by him 117 times. The syndrome occurs when the blood vessels in the placenta deliver too much to one twin while the other receives not enough.

Mrs Sabin had alleged that the professor made jokes about her knickers, made disparaging remarks about Newcastle and made sexual comments to the friend who accompanied her. She also alleged that he shouted "your babies are dying" during the operation and swore.

But the professor told the GMC's professional conduct committee that his only concern had been the well-being of his patient and her children, and that his comments had been an attempt to put her at her ease.

Mrs Sabin from Morpeth, Northumberland, told the GMC on Tuesday that when she asked for painkillers Professor Nicolaides joked with a group of student doctors observing the operation, saying: "These are the women from Newcastle, they cook their men their dinner, then go out and get drunk, then they come back and beat the women and they have sex with them, and she wants painkillers."

Professor Nicolaides admitted making comments along these lines, saying that experience had taught him that it was often useful to be "provocative" to calm patients' nerves and relax them.

He denied that the comments were directed at the group of students or that they had been made in response to a request for painkillers.

Professor Nicolaides accepted Mrs Sabin's allegation that he had put an arm round her friend Helen Potts, who had come with her to the hospital to offer support, but denied that this was a sexual overture. He said: "I put my arm around her not for comforting her, but as a gesture of welcome."

He agreed that he had greeted Mrs Sabin and Mrs Potts as "the beautiful women of Newcastle", but again denied that this was a sexual approach.

The doctor, who has won a world-wide reputation with his pioneering work on foetal surgery at King's College Hospital, south London, said he tried to involve patients fully in every stage of their treatment and that this was why he told Mrs Sabin, after she began to haemorrhage that her babies were dying.

Dr Neil Sebire, who assisted with the operation, said that the professor made a point of encouraging an informal atmosphere at the hospital's Harris Birthright Centre, which he had set up to treat women experiencing difficult pregnancies. He told the hearing: "It is a unique unit in that a large proportion of the patients have foetal abnormalities.

"Almost by definition, every single patient in the unit is traumatised. You are telling them potentially the worst news of their lives. Part of the rationale of the unit is at least to get patients relaxed."

He denied that Professor Nicolaides - who managed the pregnancy of Mandy Allwood, the West Midlands woman who conceived octuplets after fertility treatment but miscarried in October 1996 - had been "playing to the audience" during the operation on Mrs Sabin.

Dr Sabire said: "He always comes in and speaks to the patients. His policy is much stricter than in any other department I have worked in, in that you are under no circumstances allowed to ask him any question while the patient is in the room. He will not let any doctors ask him any questions."

After the hearing, Professor Nicolaides said: "I'm very grateful for the patience and support of my colleagues and very pleased that I will be able to continue to work with my patients, who I have devoted all my life to."

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