Hospital `gambled on heart girl's life'

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The Independent Online
A WOMAN described yesterday how a hospital took an "unacceptable gamble" with her daughter's life, by moving her from the intensive care unit where she was on a life-support machine to a neighbouring hospital to allow the unit to prepare for a visit by the Secretary of State for Health.

Michelle Cummings, whose daughter Charlotte was born in March 1987 with multiple heart defects, told the public inquiry into the Bristol baby deaths that her daughter was recovering from heart surgery at the Bristol Royal Infirmary in June 1988 when the decision to move her was made. She was told it was necessary because of an impending visit by Kenneth Clarke, the then health secretary, and Edwina Currie, the former health minister.

The ministers were due to open a new intensive care unit at the infirmary and the existing one was being closed, although it was unclear yesterday why Charlotte could not have been transferred directly to the new unit.

Mrs Cummings said: "They took her off the life-support machine and, while hand-ventilating her, took her by ambulance to the intensive care unit at the children's hospital but they didn't know we were coming." Her voice faltered as she described how there was no bed or life-support machine for Charlotte in the intensive care unit or the baby unit, so her daughter ended up on the bed of a child who had been taken to theatre for a tonsillectomy. Although Charlotte recovered from that, she died eight months later.

The inquiry panel was shown a document relating to Charlotte's transfer to the children's hospital with the words "arrived unannounced as usual" on it. The inquiry has already heard from earlier witnesses of problems at the infirmary which go far beyond the failings of the two surgeons, James Wisheart and Janardan Dhasmana, highlighted by the General Medical Council's investigation last year.

Mrs Cummings, 32, is a leading spokeswoman for the Bristol Surgeons' Support Group, which is campaigning to restore the reputation of the two doctors whom the group says have been unfairly penalised for the shortcomings of others. "We believe that Charlotte received the best possible care from Mr Wisheart and his team that was available at the time. He's an incredibly gentle man and extremely dedicated to the families and children in his care."

Earlier, Malcolm Curnow, a leading figure in the Bristol Children's Heart Action Group which campaigned for the public inquiry, described how his one-year-old daughter Verity died after an operation which he had been told was low risk.

Weeks after the operation in 1990 he discovered that doctors considered the only hope was a heart-lung transplant. He said he was "devastated" the information had been kept from him. He told the inquiry that if he had known the true risks he would never have consented to the operation. "I feel that consent was obtained fraudulently."

Eight years later, he saw a news item on television about the GMC case which showed pictures of Mr Dhasmana. He had earlier been assured that Mr Dhasmana was not involved in an internal inquiry into the hospital. "It was at that point I knew I had been lied to, and I knew I had been deceived."

The inquiry continues.