Damaged patients call for inquiry

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS WERE urged last night to hold a public inquiry into a hospital at the centre of a scandal involving a series of botched operations by an incompetent surgeon.

Angry patients of Rodney Ledward, consultant gynaecologist at the William Harvey hospital in Ashford, Kent - self-styled as the fastest gynaecologist in the South-east - demanded that hospital managers investigate how he was allowed to continue operating for 16 years.

A public meeting in Folkestone last night was attended by 240 people to hear hospital managers explain why Mr Ledward, who was struck off the medical register two months ago, was not stopped sooner. Mr Ledward was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council after he committed gross errors and carried out unnecessary surgery on 10 women between 1989 and 1996.

The GMC verdict was based on 10 cases in which operations were botched or should not have gone ahead, but scores more women have come forward since and more than 40 are considering legal action.

Since the GMC case ended six weeks ago, the hospital has been overwhelmed with calls from women who believe they may have been injured by him. Up to last night, 184 had contacted a hospital hotline and 105 had been seen as outpatients. Of those, doctors say 24 have "continuing medical problems".

Last night, former patients of Mr Ledward expressed anger, frustration and despair as they described the injuries they had suffered. Several said they had had no idea that they might have been victims of surgical error until they heard that Mr Ledward had been struck off six weeks ago.

Peggy Burchett, 54, of Ashford, who had a hysterectomy in 1984, said she had suffered problems for which she had needed repeated operations since. "Why did it take so long to realise mistakes had been made? I was very angry about it and I am still angry. I am not satisfied with what was done to me."

The highly charged meeting heard allegations that Mr Ledward had abused and ridiculed patients and ignored their requests. Natasha Lambert, who had surgery at the private Chaucer hospital in Canterbury, said: "I was messed up in hospital and when I was due to be discharged Mr Ledward turned up in full riding gear with a riding crop... How come no one knew what was going on?"

Several women broke down in tears as they described their ordeal. One, who declined to give her name, said she had one ovary removed in 1982 at the age of 21. When a cyst developed on the other six years later Mr Ledward proposed a hysterectomy. In a voice shaking with emotion she told the meeting: "I had one baby and I desperately wanted another. I said no to the hysterectomy and when I woke up I had no womb and no ovary. He gave no reason. That man was so arrogant he didn't even sign my consent form."

Mr Ledward was appointed a consultant at the William Harvey hospital in 1980 and also worked at several private hospitals, including St Saviour's in Hythe, Kent, run by the medical insurer Bupa. He was suspended in January 1996 after a hysterectomy on a 42-year-old woman at St Saviour's went wrong and she needed emergency surgery to save her life.

Revulsion at his behaviour was shared by managers and doctors at the William Harvey who attended last night's meeting. Noel Padley, medical director of South Kent Hospitals NHS Trust, said Mr Ledward had been disciplined for rudeness and bad timekeeping. "As soon as we knew he was endangering patients we dismissed him."

He added that he had been forced to stay silent on the case until Mr Ledward's right of appeal against the GMC finding expired last month. "I can talk openly of what went on for the first time. If I had done so before he would have wriggled off and I would have hated that."

On compensation for patients, he said Mr Ledward was well insured and there was "an unlimited pot of money" out of which payments could come.

Bupa declined to attend the meeting. The private health organisation issued a curt statement, saying that it had set up a counselling service for concerned patients.

Paul Watkins, chairman of the South-east Kent Community Health Council, said that he would be writing to Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Health, to demand a public inquiry. Brenda Johnson, organiser of the patient support group, who suffered 14 years of pain after being operated on by Mr Ledward, said: "This has been pushed under the carpet for too long. He should have been stopped and we want to find out why he wasn't."

Consultant surgeon Douglas Irving, suspended from Stracathro hospital in Brechin, Tayside, since July after breast and colorectal cancer patients were not given the right treatment, will only be able to resume his duties after undergoing training, hospital officials said yesterday.