Girl, 15, given radiation overdose

AN INVESTIGATION is under way at a top cancer hospital today after a teenage patient was given a massive overdose of radiation up to 17 times during treatment.

Lisa Norris, 15, was given the overdoses at the Beatson Oncology Centre in Glasgow, where she was treated for a brain tumour. The hospital has blamed human error for the overdoses.

The effects of the overdoses are not yet known, but the parents of the teenager from Girvan in Ayrshire said doctors had warned that the extra radiation could prove fatal.

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Staff at the hospital were said to be extremely distraught over the case. It is understood the girl was given the overdose at each radiation session - a total of 17 times.

Professor Alan Rodger, medical director of Beatson Oncology Centre, said: "Initial meetings have taken place with the girl and her family.

"We will do everything in our power to support both them and their daughter in the challenges ahead."

Lisa began radiation therapy on 5 January, after four blocks of chemotherapy at Yorkhill Hospital. Last Tuesday, staff told her the tumour had gone.

She was said to be celebrating her recovery when consultants came to her home to tell her about the error.

The teenager has developed large sores on her scalp and ears, and is permanently hot and has to take cold showers to cool herself down. Her father Ken, 50, said: "Doctors say at best she could land in a wheelchair or be paralysed, but at worst this could be fatal."

Mr Norris hit out at hospital staff, saying: "If they can do this to Lisa, they can do this to anyone."

A cancer expert said that it would be about three months before the damage to Lisa's body could be assessed. An investigation is now under way.

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A spokeswoman for NHS Greater Glasgow said in a statement: "Immediately upon discovering that the patient had been given the radiation overdose an internal investigation was launched and the Scottish Executive health department notified.

"It has been established that no equipment failure was involved.

"Initial findings indicate that the overdose was the result of human error and no other patient treatments were compromised.

"The Scottish Executive health department will now conduct their own full inquiry with the full support and co-operation of NHS Greater Glasgow staff."

Lesley Walker, head of the cancer information department at Cancer Research UK, said radiotherapy is commonly used for brain tumours because it can target areas of the brain that would be impossible to reach surgically. A radiographer would be responsible for working out a particular dose, she said.

Although she stressed it was impossible to comment on the case of the 15-year-old without case notes Dr Walker said any error was most likely to occur during this planning stages: "It sounds like it happened at the planning stage when they calculate what the dose is."

She explained side effects after radiotherapy include hair loss, long term tiredness, irritation of the skin and nausea - an overdose of radiation would lead to more sever side effects in the long term and to possible brain damage if tissues were harmed by the rays.

Dr Walker said the effects would emerge over time depending on the dose and which area of the brain was targeted.

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"It is a bit of a waiting game because some of the side effects will develop over time. Potentially it could be fatal, it depends on which area of the brain the radiotherapy targeted.

The Beatson is Scotland's largest cancer centre, and the second-largest in the UK.

It sees 8,000 new patients each year and more than 15,000 courses of chemotherapy and 6,500 courses of radiotherapy are administered.

The centre is based on three sites in Glasgow. The radiation overdose is understood to have taken place at the Western Infirmary in the city.

How treatment works - and the risks

RADIOTHERAPY is the use of high energy X-rays to destroy tumour cells whilst doing as little harm as possible to surrounding normal cells.

Due to the nature of brain cells, radiotherapy is much more damaging to a tumour than the surrounding brain. Nevertheless every effort is made to minimise the amount of brain irradiated.

Radiotherapy is given in a course of daily treatments called fractions. A patient's treatment is planned individually by their doctor.

Before the radiotherapy can begin, the exact treatment plan, the radiotherapy dose, the number of fractions and the amount of brain that will be treated is decided by the radiotherapist.

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Even when the correct dosage is given side effects can include hair loss, nausea, itchy "burned" skin and loss of periods and sexual function.