News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

Teenager died after surgeon “lost his temper”

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 15 December 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:1387

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A consultant surgeon standing trial at Exeter crown court for the manslaughter of a teenage patient caused her death through negligence after losing his temper during the operation, the court was told last week.

    Kenneth Woodburn, aged 39, of Idless, near Truro, Cornwall, pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter of 16 year old Kelly Dent at Treliske Hospital, Truro, in September 1998.

    The teenager, who had acute myeloid leukaemia, was added to Mr Woodburn's operating list at short notice, after attempts by her own consultant to insert a Hickman line had failed.

    “Sadly, what should have been a reasonably simple and certainly not sophisticated or complicated operation—albeit it was under general anaesthetic—went disastrously wrong,” said Mr John Bevan QC, prosecuting. Part of the patient's heart was punctured, and she died on the operating table.

    Mr Bevan said that Mr Woodburn was accepted to be a competent and respected vascular surgeon. But on this “rare if not unique occasion” shortness of time together with things going wrong and the normal tension and stress of the operating theatre caused him to lose his temper and act in a way that eventually became dangerous.

    Mr Woodburn had been asked to add Kelly Dent to his operating list for the next day when the list was already full. He had a clinic that afternoon in Penzance, which meant he had 40 minutes to operate on Kelly Dent. The procedure was a standard one, not normally carried out by such a senior surgeon.

    Two theatre nurses, Philippa Denton and Wendy Button, told the court they were shocked by Mr Woodburn's behaviour during the operation. Mrs Button, a staff nurse, said she was “aghast” at Mr Woodburn's language and the way the patient was handled.

    She told the jury: “He just could not insert the guide wire and asked for another. I could not see what the problem was but he was using such force her whole body shook.”

    She said that Mr Woodburn “unusually” had asked for an eight inch clamp. “He was quite forceful with it. Again the whole body shook. What he was trying to do with it I have no idea.”

    Mrs Button said she came out of the theatre in “horrendous shock” after the girl's death. “I looked at her face, and it was obvious she had died. I would normally say deaths are nothing in theatres. But when they are butchered to death like that, it certainly is.”

    Theatre nurse Philippa Denton told the jury that Mr Woodburn was “agitated and swearing.” He bent a metal tunnelling rod “because he used it with such force.” His physical treatment of the patient in trying to insert the rod was “very aggressive and violent.”

    She had advised him against using forceps with a right angled curve, which she had never seen used in the tunnelling procedure before. But he persisted, pushing “really hard.”

    Mr Woodburn was suspended last June by the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust. The trial is expected to end next week.

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