Election `97: Cancer death revives Jennifer's ear furore

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In a move which had echoes of the "Jennifer's ear" controversy of 1992, the Liberal Democrats yesterday claimed the vote of a nurse who said she had just seen a 22-year-old patient die needlessly from cancer.

The anonymous nurse, who told her story in a newspaper interview last week, had her words read on video by an actress at two Liberal Democrat press conferences yesterday.

The party said she had spoken at length to its leader, Paddy Ashdown, after seeing him throw away a prepared speech and read out an article based on her experiences to a gathering of health professionals.

A week ago, The Mirror filled its front page with her anguished description of how the young man had died in her arms after having an exploratory operation cancelled three times. She said he had first complained of stomach pains two-and-a-half months ago and had been referred to a consultant three weeks later. There was no bed available and he was finally admitted to hospital a week last Tuesday. By then the cancer had spread too far and he died two days later in her arms.

There had been no doctor available to notify his relatives, and she had been forced to telephone his parents to tell them. She said she did not have the heart to tell his girlfriend.

"His death had upset everyone ... most of us think that if he had been admitted straight away he might have been able to have chemotherapy," she told the newspaper.

Yesterday the Liberal Democrats published a statement from the nurse saying she had "decided to do something positive about it", by switching to the party after being a long-term Labour voter.

"The sad story I told is not unique. There are similar stories to be told in hospitals all over Britain. That can't be right. I shall put my trust in Paddy Ashdown and his party to make the difference for the NHS," the statement said.

Mr Ashdown defended the move against charges of "shroud-waving" at a gathering in Scotland, although his campaign manager, Lord Holme, said the young man's family had not been contacted. "We are not talking about the personal details of a tragedy. This is not Jennifer's ear, this is about a single person's cry for help from inside the NHS," he said.

During the 1992 election, Labour published details of the problems suffered by a little girl called Jennifer while she was waiting for an ear operation.

The move backfired badly when family members criticised the party for using her case as an election issue.