Peter and Ursula Slennett feared that their daughter Hayley would die while waiting for an operation on the NHS at Guy's Hospital, south London, to correct a congenital heart defect and a misplaced artery compressing her gullet. As they watched her deteriorate, the couple turned in desperation to the hospital's private wing, 10 months after her condition was first diagnosed.
Although they paid pounds 8,500 for the treatment at the Government's flagship trust hospital, Hayley was cared for in a typical hard-pressed NHS children's ward. There was no cot for her when she came out of intensive care and nurses could not even find her a pillow.
After the Independent on Sunday reported the family's complaint on 23 June, Guy's responded to their demands for a refund by sending them a cheque for pounds 420, with no accompanying explanation. Mr Slennett, who expressed his disgust at Guy's handling of the case in a letter to the Prime Minister, has now received a reply from his office, backing the hospital.
Mark Adams, Mr Major's private secretary, wrote to the couple: 'It is for doctors to decide on the clinical priority of each case. If the doctors had concluded that her condition demanded it, she would have been treated immediately. I am sorry you felt it necessary to seek private treatment. When children receive private treatment, it is the availability of immediate treatment that is ensured, not any difference in quality of treatment.'
The reply referred to a letter from a senior registrar at Guy's to the Slennetts on 3 April saying that Hayley had been 'pencilled in' for surgery at the end of May. However, neither Guy's nor the Prime Minister's office have denied the events on 8 May that dashed their hopes again. Then, Michael Tynan, professor of paediatric cardiology at Guy's, met the Slennetts to discuss Hayley's condition, and said the operation might not take place until December, or even later.
He suggested that Hayley's frequent collapses and bouts of breathlessness were childish 'acting up', and a symptom of anxiety about an operation she knew she would have to undergo.
It was the last straw for Mr Slennett, a window-cleaner earning pounds 250 a week, and his wife. By then, Hayley was spending most days asleep, and her mental and physical development was that of a 15-month-old. They rang Professor Tynan's office as soon as they arrived home from the meeting and asked whether it would make any difference if they arranged private treatment.
The operation took place at Guy's five days later, after the couple spent the weekend frantically trying to raise the pounds 8,500 demanded by Nuffield House, the private wing.
Mr Slennett was bitterly disappointed at the Prime Minister's letter. 'We were hoping the Government would be able to sort this problem out or get to the bottom of it, but it seems Guy's have closed ranks and pulled the wool over the Government's eyes.'
The couple, whose complaints have been backed by Lewisham and North Southwark Community Health Council, will meet Guy's chairman, its chief executive, and the heart doctors involved in the case, on Wednesday. 'I don't want anyone else to have to go through what we went through,' said Mrs Slennett. 'It's not just the money we want back. We want a commitment from Guy's that when people opt for private treatment a proper contract is drawn up, so patients know exactly what to expect for their money.'
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