Cancelled heart operations blamed for death

NHS on trial: MPs rebel as elderly patient's surgery put off four times

The death of an elderly woman whose life-saving heart surgery was cancelled four times because of specialist bed shortages has moved the winter crisis in the health service to the centre of the political stage.

As the family of Queenie Harrild, 69, blamed her death on inadequate NHS funding, opposition politicians called for an immediate Commons statement on the rise in emergency admissions to hospitals, exacerbated by cold weather and flu.

Chris Smith, Labour's spokesman on health, published figures yesterday showing that almost one in four beds across all specialities had closed since the introduction of the internal NHS market.

The British Medical Association last week reiterated its warnings of a winter crisis and is seeking an urgent meeting with Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, after a survey revealed widespread ward and hospital closures and cancelled operations.

A consultant who cared for Mrs Harrild at Guy's Hospital, in south London, said that heart surgery at the trust had been severely affected "for several months" because intensive-care beds were permanently full.

Dr Bob Knight said: "This was a disaster for Mrs Harrild and a terrible tragedy for her family, made worse by the feeling that if things had been dealt with in some other way she would still be here."

At a press conference at Westminster yesterday, Mrs Harrild's son David said the family would campaign for better funding for the NHS. Her death was caused by the stress of being prepared four times for the operation and then let down, he said.

On each occasion, no intensive-care bed had been available. "In our view, her death is the result of the constant build-ups and let-downs due to the fact that these operations had been cancelled," he added. "We feel it is cruelty to the patient to have to go through this torture.

Mrs Harrild's husband, Bill, 68, a retired HGV driver, saidthe family were speaking publicly to prevent future tragedies and did not blame the hospital. "We don't want Queenie to have died in vain," he said. "Hopefully, this won't happen again."

Mrs Harrild, a former nursery school helper, who had already had one heart bypass, was admitted to her local hospital in Lewisham on 3 December and transferred to Guy's 10 days later. Operations were scheduled for 23 December, 24 December, 2 January and 3 January but never went ahead.

Mrs Harrild was then told that "unless the hospital was bombed", her operation would be on Monday 6 January. However, she collapsed and died on 4 January.

Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, who organised the press conference for the family, said the number of beds available at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Trust had fallen from 1,400 to 1,100 in two years.

The number of operations purchased by Mrs Harrild's local health authority from the trust was to be cut by a further 5 per cent from April. "Next year ordinary local people who have a perfectly proper case for treatment will have less chance of getting operations because the contract isn't there for them," Mr Hughes said.

Dr Knight said Mrs Harrild's case had been exacerbated by a high number of admissions over Christmas. However, a new building with 13 new intensive- care beds in it was lying empty, he added.

A trust spokeswoman said that the building was not ready. The hospital had five more intensive-care beds than it did four years ago and a new cardiac centre had recently opened at St Thomas'.

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