Three keyhole surgery patients died because of surgeons’ serial blunders

Lal Singh wasn't qualified in keyhole surgery. Picture: Sam Hardie
Lal Singh wasn't qualified in keyhole surgery. Picture: Sam Hardie
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A HEALTH board has apologised after a series of blunders by surgeons led to the deaths of three hospital patients.

Agnes Nicol, 50, George Johnstone, 54, and Andrew Ritchie, 62, all died after developing complications following surgery to remove their gallbladders.

John Cannon was in charge of Mrs Nicol's care. Picture: Sam Hardie

John Cannon was in charge of Mrs Nicol's care. Picture: Sam Hardie

Mrs Nicol and Mr Ritchie were treated at Wishaw General Hospital, North Lanarkshire, and Mr Johnstone at Monklands Hospital, Airdrie.

Following their deaths in 2006, a fatal accident inquiry was held at Cumbernauld Justice of the Peace Court in October and November last year.

In his written judgment yesterday, Sheriff Robert Dickson hit out at the care they received and said their deaths were avoidable. He said the deaths were caused by surgical errors and poor follow-up care and heavily criticised poor note keeping by the surgeons involved.

“In each of the cases the consultant … failed to consider the growing body of evidence that there was something fundamentally wrong with the patient and that the most likely cause was something that had arisen in the course of the operation.”

The sheriff added: “There is substance in the contention that had the post-operative care been to the standard which they expected, and had there been a proper management plan which staff could have worked to, that there remains a realistic possibility in each case that the death would not have occurred.”

Mrs Nicol, of Carluke, lost nearly all her blood during surgery in December 2005. She died three months later.

During the inquiry, John Cannon, the surgeon in charge of her care, accepted he had failed to diagnose the source of the bleeding, did not keep adequate notes and did not have her transferred to a specialist liver unit in Edinburgh quickly enough.

Mr Cannon said he had asked another surgeon, Lal Singh, to carry out the operation because he was not qualified in keyhole surgery. However, Mr Singh cut the wrong artery and Mr Cannon was later called in to save Mrs Nicol’s life after she suffered the massive blood loss.

After yesterday’s judgment, Mrs Nicol’s daughter Margo Nicol, 29, said: “Disgusting mistakes were made again and again and again and they had so many chances to save my mum’s life.

“We raised concerns at the time and pleaded with the surgeons to investigate what went wrong with the operation but they just didn’t listen. These people are supposed to be highly experienced professionals. That they can make such awful mistakes will put fear into patients.”

The probe also heard consultant Alison Lannigan admit she unwittingly cut into another organ while performing keyhole surgery on Andrew Ritchie. Mrs Lannigan said his death might have been avoided had she carried out open surgery instead.

She also admitted she should have acted sooner after Mr Ritchie suffered post-operative complications. Mr Ritchie, 62, of Motherwell, died nine days after his operation in June 2006.

The widow of George Johnstone told the inquiry a surgeon “shrugged” when she asked him what had gone wrong with his operation. Alice Johnstone, 53, said general surgeon Joseph Cumming told her he believed her husband George’s gallbladder surgery had gone well.

Mr Johnstone, of Airdrie, went to Monklands Hospital on 9 May 2006 and had been expected to be released next day. However, following the procedure his condition deteriorated rapidly and he contracted blood poisoning and died on 11 May.

A spokesman for NHS Lanarkshire said: “This has been extremely distressing for the patients’ families. We would like to apologise to them. We have made significant improvements and will study the determination to identify if there are any further areas where we can improve.”