Alder Hey Organs Scandal - History


Until a public inquiry in 1999, the general public was unaware that Alder Hey and other hospitals within the National Health Service (NHS) were retaining patients' organs without family consent.

The inquiry was sparked by the death of 11 month old Samantha Rickard, who died in 1992 while undergoing open-heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI). In 1996, four years after Samantha's death, her mother Helen Rickard learned of the allegations of excessive mortality rates for children's heart surgery at the BRI. Helen demanded a copy of her infant's medical records from the hospital and found a letter from the pathologist who performed the post-mortem to her surgeon, stating that he had retained Samantha's heart. Confronted with this evidence, the hospital promptly returned the heart in 1997. Helen quit working to find out exactly what had happened to her daughter; she set up a support group with other parents and ran a free phone helpline to cater to the many other families affected as well.

A Bristol Heart Children Action Group was set up, and the group embarked on discussions with the hospital to find out how much human material had been kept from children who had died after cardiac surgery. In February 1999, the Action Group members called a press conference so that the public should know about the retained hearts. In the meantime serious doubts about the quality of paediatric cardiac surgery at Bristol led to the formation of a Public Inquiry, chaired by Ian Kennedy. In September 1999 a medical witness to the Inquiry drew attention to the large number of hearts held at the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool.

As the details of Alder Hey's organ retention began to come to light the public learned that the program went back decades. An investigation was opened in December 1999. This investigation brought to light the fact that Alder Hey was not the only Liverpool hospital affected; Walton Hospital had stored the organs of 700 patients. (This information seems to have been forgotten by those involved in the Alder Hey scandal and the media.)

In January 2001 the official Alder Hey report (also known as the Redfern Report) was published. A large scale public outcry against the National Health Service resulted when it was revealed that Dutch pathologist Dick van Velzen had systematically ordered the "unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child who had had a postmortem" during his time at the hospital. This was ordered even for the children of parents who specifically stated that they did not want a full post-mortem. The report also revealed that over 104,000 organs, body parts and entire bodies of fetuses and still-born babies were stored in 210 NHS facilities. Additionally 480,600 samples of tissue taken from dead patients were also being held. Later that year the General Medical Council (GMC) ruled that van Velzen should be temporarily banned from practising medicine in the UK.

Furthermore, it emerged that Birmingham Children's Hospital and Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool had also given thymus glands, removed from live children during heart surgery, to a pharmaceutical company for research in return for financial donations. Alder Hey also stored without consent 1,500 fetuses that were miscarried, stillborn or aborted

Early 2003 saw the Alder Hey claims by families of victims being settled for an out-of-court settlement of £5 million, a sum equivalent to about £5000 for each child.

In January 2004 more than 2,000 families filed suit against the NHS with the High Court for removing the body parts of dead patients, including children, without consent.

Starting on August 5, 2004 the bodies of 50 nameless babies stored for medical research at Liverpool hospitals were buried at Allerton cemetery. Alder Hey accounted for 7 of the unnamed while the rest came from other hospitals. More funerals followed on the Thursday of each week for several months to come. Over 1,000 unidentified bodies, most of them fetuses less than 28 weeks old, were buried during this time.

By December 2004 the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided that there should be no prosecution of Dick van Velzen for criminal offences. The reason given for this decision was that there could be no guarantee that organs which remained in the containers were those originally taken at post mortem examination. This caused a problem for the prosecution, who were required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the organs were indeed illegitimately obtained. The police attempted to find a solution to this problem, but were unable to do so.

The families of the victims involved in the Alder Hey scandal were appalled that van Velzen would not have to face criminal charges, and criticized the CPS for making this decision.

On Monday June 20, 2005 the GMC ruled that van Velzen would be permanently banned from practising medicine in the UK.

Read more about this topic:  Alder Hey Organs Scandal

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