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Bristol trust admits liability in baby heart surgery case

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7204.213a (Published 24 July 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:213
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    United Bristol Healthcare Trust in Britain made the first public admission of liability this week for injuries to a child brain damaged in the Bristol heart surgery case.

    The admission and apology for injuries to Ian Stewart, aged 6, were made public as James Wisheart, one of the two surgeons found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council, began his evidence to the public inquiry into children's heart surgery at Bristol between 1984 and 1995. The child's parents, Bronwen and James Stewart, who gave up their jobs to care for their son, staged a silent protest at the inquiry as Mr Wisheart began giving evidence. Their placards accused the GMC of a “cover-up” and claimed that the inquiry was a “whitewash.” The family could eventually receive a settlement of £2m ($3.2m) or more.

    Mr Wisheart, who had combined the roles of surgeon and medical director, denied that his administrative responsibilities interfered with his function as a surgeon. He conceded that the workload was heavy but added: “I did not think I was doing too much.” He and his colleagues worked long hours to meet the demands for heart surgery in a service that was underresourced, he said. When a new surgeon started work the situation improved, but then the trust sought more operations so the workload increased again.

    Brian Langstaff, QC to the inquiry, asked Mr Wisheart if his dual role meant carrying his worries into the operating theatre. He replied: “Those things were put out of one's mind and waited until the operation was completed. I can really say that going to the operating theatre was my refuge.”

    The surgeon's evidence this week mainly concerned management issues. He will be recalled in the autumn to address clinical issues and the adequacy of children's heart surgery services. The NHS Litigation Authority reported that there are 193 actual or potential damages claims involving Mr Wisheart and his fellow surgeon, Janardan Dhasmana.

    Mr Stewart, whose son had a truncus arteriosis operation carried out by Mr Wisheart, said outside the inquiry: “If we had been informed of the mortality rates, we would never have consented to surgery and Ian could be running around like any normal 6 year old today.” A spokesman for the trust said that it admitted breaching its duty to Ian “in that itfailed to provide accurate information to his parents.”

    Mr Wisheart and Dr John Roylance, former chief executive of the trust, both now retired, were struck off by the General Medical Council, and Mr Dhasmana was banned from operating on children for a period of three years. He later lost his job.

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