On the trail of the vanishing doctor

Eye witness: He made the news but Dr Richard Stevens is only one of thousands who vanish each year.
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It is now a fortnight since Dr Richard Stevens draped his jacket over a chair, left his hospital security pass on a desk, and vanished. In that time the wife and children of the 54-year-old have made tearful appeals for him to come home or call. The police have searched every lift shaft and dark corner at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital, where he was last seen on 21 July, and ruled out a series of possible sightings. "We've kind of drawn a blank," admitted a spokeswoman on Friday.

But the police have a problem. In the fortnight since Dr Stevens vanished, more than 366 others have also been reported missing in Greater Manchester. "We want to dedicate as much resources as we can to him," the spokeswoman said, "but we've got thousands of missing people."

None of them received the same level of media attention as Dr Stevens, because they did not have such high-profile jobs or apparently comfortable family lives. Many turned up again within hours. Some did not, and joined the 210,000 who go missing in Britain every year. The people they left behind are experiencing, like those who know Dr Stevens, the difficulty of going on as before.

It is, perhaps, easier in a hospital, where the suffering never stops. Professor Tim Eden, his closest colleague, described Dr Stevens as "one of the most personable people you could meet", adding, "If he had a problem I wish he could have talked to us about it." But now that they have paid their tributes and helped with the appeal, hospital staff are unwilling to say any more for the time being. It was time to get back to medicine, one of them said on Friday, "because somebody has to cover for him, after all".

The parents of a toddler who was playing with her dolly in the canteen had great sympathy for the family of Dr Stevens, but they expected that someone else would be doing his rounds. Their daughter looked up and smiled. She had a drip tube taped to her nose. The pale young woman sitting outside the bone marrow unit, with a scarf wrapped around her hairless scalp, did not look as though her treatment could wait just because a doctor had gone missing. Nor did the girl in the dressing gown who held her side and complained, "I've had a bad day today." The nurse who was unlocking her ward replied with an optimism that if it was honest was also professional: "You'll get better, don't worry."

The hospital, founded in 1829, is a confusing jumble of the original, sandy-yellow brick buildings, modern extensions and prefabricated units. "Unauthorised persons will be asked to leave" said a sign by the grand, pillared entrance, but the security system was designed to keep people out rather than stop them vanishing into thin air.

Dr Stevens was caught on camera in the lobby on his way to work that Monday morning, having risen with the alarm set for 6.38 as usual and kissed his wife on the forehead as she dozed, but nobody saw him leave the hospital. He may have left on foot, because his Audi was still in the car park. If he walked downhill to catch a bus he would have passed a security gate and hospital staff coming and going - quite a risk to take if the intention was to vanish. It seems more likely that if Dr Stevens left voluntarily, he walked in the opposite direction, through the side gate to the quiet residential streets above which the hospital incinerator chimney rises. Or that he was picked up by a car.

Some hospital staff have heard a rumour that he was abducted by villains and forced to treat a robber armed in a raid, which sounds suspiciously like a recent plot in the TV medical drama Holby City. Another, more plausible, theory is that he had a breakdown. Working with suffering children in a small hospital could easily make a sensitive man feel low. The brightly coloured cartoon animals on the windows and the knitted baby grows and shiny toys for sale in the lobby are assertions of life, but the parents watching anxiously as their children tuck into treats in the canteen know it may be hard won. The doctors and nurses eat in the same room, separated only by a low wooden screen. There are few places to escape work.

Eirwen Stevens said she knew when her husband had been through a hard time because he would sit alone with a glass of milk listening to classical music. He could not talk about his patients, so she would just ask, "How old?"

Eirwen has suffered from excruciating pain in her stomach since the day she was told her husband had disappeared. They had argued the Sunday before, but she says it was "a normal family tiff". The police do not believe it was enough to provoke a sudden disappearance. "For whatever reason, he has gone away," said their son Jonathan. "All we ask is that he makes a call."

But Dr Stevens has not done so. His mobile phone has been switched off and his bank accounts are untouched. A man seen on a train to London turned out to be someone else. Dr Stevens could not have been on a plane to Florida, as reported, according to the police, because his passport was still at home. The Stevens family live on a busy but desirable road in Sale, where posters protest against the conversion of fine Edwardian villas into flats. Their own home is a less grand semi-detached house decorated with hanging baskets that appear to have been the subject of much loving attention. Dr Stevens was a meticulous, patient man who played the cornet in a brass band, knew every word of every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and had rebuilt an old Panther car. Yesterday members of the family were thought to be widening their own search to Yorkshire, where they had enjoyed happy holidays together.

Meanwhile, back in Manchester, a man of similar age was searching the streets for signs of his daughter. Colin Brooks carried a photograph of Lilly, a 13-year-old who went missing a month ago. The police fear she may have been abducted and forced into prostitution. Mr Brooks' words echoed those of Jonathan Stevens and the parents, sons, daughters and lovers of so many thousands of missing people in Manchester and all over the country:

"All we want is a call to say she's OK."