Far more than two bad apples

The Bristol Baby scandal goes far deeper than we might realise

Share

Three years after the Bristol babies heart surgery disaster started to unfold, shocking facts continue to emerge. The latest expert assessment, released by the public inquiry last Thursday, suggests that 90 dead and damaged babies might have been saved with better care, and that 540 others received care that was "less than adequate" between 1984 and 1995. Now we understand why the paediatric cardiac unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary was dubbed "the killing fields".

Three years after the Bristol babies heart surgery disaster started to unfold, shocking facts continue to emerge. The latest expert assessment, released by the public inquiry last Thursday, suggests that 90 dead and damaged babies might have been saved with better care, and that 540 others received care that was "less than adequate" between 1984 and 1995. Now we understand why the paediatric cardiac unit at the Bristol Royal Infirmary was dubbed "the killing fields".

But while we know, broadly, what happened in Bristol, the mystery is how it happened - how a hospital committed to saving babies ended up burying them. And went on burying them, year after heart- breaking year.

Tonight Channel 4 broadcasts a two-hour "factual drama" that attempts to get at the truth of the catastrophe. Based on the public inquiry evidence, it is meticulously faithful to the events it reconstructs.

The outline facts are well known. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, the surgeons James Wisheart and Janardan Dhasmana continued to perform heart surgery on new-born babies and infants despite repeated warnings about poor survival rates. Along with the hospital's chief executive, John Roylance, they were later found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council.

Given the subject, it would have been easy for the directro, Peter Kosminsky, to produce a Hollywood-style tear- jerker. But the film tries to capture the complexity of both personalities and events. For if there is one thing the Bristol disaster is not about it's two bad surgeons turning a hospital rotten. That would make it easy to dismiss as a "local failure", the words used by the former president of the Royal College of Surgeons, Sir Rodney Sweetnam, the day after the GMC verdict was handed down in June 1998.

The surgeons, Wisheart and Dhasmana, are the only names associated with the scandal but they were far from being the only ones responsible for it. The film lays bare the "institutional arrogance", highlighted by the public inquiry's interim report into the organ retention scandal, that lay behind the surgeons' failure.

As the death toll mounts, we see the bickering and petty rivalry among the consultants - anaesthetists and cardiologists, as well as the surgeons - and a loss of confidence among the nurses. Above all, there is a fatal complicity by all involved to "keep the train moving" even though passengers were falling off, as the whistleblower, the consultant anaesthetist Stephen Bolsin, later put it to the public inquiry.

The film, which focuses on four families, closes with a list of 174 children who died after heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary, some of whom would have survived with better treatment.

It is the final throat-tightening moment. One of the strongest complaints of the Bristol parents is that the GMC case focused on only 29 babies who died or were brain-damaged. Naming others who lost their lives was important to the parents. This film properly honours their memory.

* 'Innocents' is shown tonight at 9pm on Channel 4. Jeremy Laurence is health editor.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior / Graduate Application Support Engineer

£26000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful international media organ...

QA Manager - North Manchester - Nuclear & MOD - £40k+

£35000 - £41000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: QA Manager -...

Property Finance Partner

Very Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: LONDON - BANKING / PROPERTY FINANCE - ...

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Day In a Page

 

Naturism criminalised: Why not being able to bare all is a bummer

Simon Usborne
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on