I once made a serious error. The patient had taken an overdose of paracetamol, but because I was single-handedly covering three inpatient acute psychiatric wards due to sickness of two other trainees which medical HR had been unable to cover, with a lot of agency nurses who did not know any of the patients well at all, and also because this patient frequently said she had taken overdoses when she had not, and declined to let me take bloods to test for paracetamol levels, I believed she was crying wolf. She collapsed several hours later, and died. I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, but also fear – was this the end of my career? I was a trainee psychiatrist at the time – and was immensely fortunate in that my supervising consultant was robust in his defence of me, supported me, whilst fronting the complaint from the patient’s family and attending the inquest. He had been covering two outpatient clinics himself while I was on the ward.
The patient was only 26 years old. Her parents were very angry with me, and not unreasonably so; at the time, it seemed to me that they wanted me to suffer. Twenty years later, I believe they wanted to understand how I made the decision I did. Eventually, the consultant arranged for me to meet the parents. They were very kind to me, all of them, I realise that now. I wasn’t able to give them the answers they wanted. I just cried and said I was sorry.
The mother sent the consultant a letter afterwards which he gave me when I was about to complete that training placement. I did not read it for many months. When I did, I cried. The mother described her daughter’s childhood, the family’s loss, and her own incomprehension that the NHS – which she and generations of her family had venerated as a great institution – could have failed her child. It said very little about me, certainly didn’t seek to blame me, but said a few times that she wanted justice for her daughter. It was an exploration of grief by a bereft mother.
I often think about the mother – I cannot recall the face of the 26 year old patient – but remember perfectly well the mother, who said very little, didn’t even cry, leaving her husband to talk incoherently about justice and a referral to the GMC and the police (they did not do any of these things). And I often ponder the nature of justice they wanted. This was well before the advent of Duty of Candour and rigorously completed serious incident investigations.
Did they get justice? The coroner returned a verdict of suicide, but failed to acknowledge the systemic problems of lack of staff, merely noting that there had a “gap in clinical assessment”. It was not untrue, yet I experienced it as unfair. The consultant reminded me that I was fortunate that the family had not made more fuss. So I let it be. Until the case of Dr Bawa-Garba.
India and Pakistan celebrate 71 years of Independence today. The British National Health Service owes them a debt of gratitude.
Great Britain’s national dish is famously chicken curry, but South Asia’s impact on this Sceptred Isle extends far beyond food. It is a testament to how ingrained into the British psyche the stereotypical Indian doctor has become that in 2005 a poll of Brits found the doctor they’d most like to consult is a 30-something South Asian female. In 2010 the BBC even ran a popular TV series simply entitled ‘The Indian Doctor’ following a story played out across the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, that of a humble family physician from the Indian subcontinent finding his feet in a country that asked him to come over and save the still-young ‘National Health Service’.
In 1948, India and Pakistan were not yet one year old when the NHS was created. Over subsequent years, recruitment drives encouraged young doctors to make a new home in the UK. Tens of thousands answered the call and it is no exaggeration to say the NHS would not have survived without them.
Now a swollen behemoth comprising some 1.8 million staff, the NHS is the world’s fifth largest employer. It is estimated to have a bewildering shortfall of 100,000 staff. Unsurprisingly almost 40% of Tier 2 (skilled) visa applications to the UK are to take up positions in the NHS. Yet over the last 13 years, South Asian doctors have been made to feel less welcome. In the first four months of 2018 alone, 400 visa applications from Indian doctors were rejected.
This is the second part of Dr. Jha’s conversation with Dr. Jonathan Cusack, who was the former supervisor and mentor of Dr. Bawa-Garba, a pediatrician convicted of manslaughter of fetal sepsis in Jack Adcock. Read the first part of this series here.
Dr. Jonathan Cusack versus the General Medical Council
I spoke with Dr. Jonathan Cusack, consultant neonatologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI), and former supervisor and mentor of Dr. Bawa-Garba, the trainee pediatrician convicted of manslaughter for delayed diagnosis of fatal sepsis in Jack Adcock, a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome. We had drinks at The George, pub opposite the Royal Courts of Justice.
In the first part of the interview we discussed the events on Friday February 18th, 2011, the day of Jack presented to LRI. In the second part of the interview we talk about the events after fatal Friday – how the crown prosecution service got involved, the trial, the manslaughter charge, the tribunal and the General Medical Council.
The Role of Dr. O’Riordan
Saurabh Jha (SJ): After Jack’s death what was Dr. Bawa-Garba’s immediate reaction?
Jonathan Cusack (JC): I think it’s one of those moments one neither forgets nor recalls. I imagine the most overwhelming feeling was one of incredulity. How and why did Jack decompensate? It’d have struck her as physiologically implausible. Though she was experiencing that grief familiar to all pediatricians when a child dies, she was trying to understand why. She didn’t know that he died from Group A Streptococcal septicemia, then.
After Dr. Hadiza Bawa-Garba was convicted for manslaughter for delayed diagnosis of fatal sepsis in Jack Adcock, a six-year-old boy who presented to Leicester Royal Infirmary with diarrhea and vomiting, she was referred to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal (MPT). The General Medical Council (GMC) is the professional regulatory body for physicians. But the MPT determines whether a physician is fit to practice. Though the tribunal is nested within the GMC and therefore within an earshot of its opinions, it is a decision-making body which is theoretically independent of the GMC.
The tribunal met in 2017, 6 years after Jack’s death, to decide whether Dr. Bawa-Garba, after the manslaughter conviction, should be allowed to practice medicine again, whether she should be suspended for a year, or her name be permanently erased (“struck off”) from the medical register. The GMC wanted Dr. Bawa-Garba to be struck off from the medical register because they felt that her care of Jack fell so short of the expected standard, that her return to practice would not only endanger patients but undermine public confidence in the medical profession. The GMC expected the MPT to agree with its uncompromising stance, and the MPT might well have, and probably would have, but for the efforts of Dr. Jonathan Cusack, a consultant neonatologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI), and a former supervisor and mentor of Dr. Bawa-Garba’s.
Cusack is unassuming even by British standards. You will not find him on social media or taking selfies. A soft-spoken northerner with a steely nerve and an uncompromising deference to facts, Cusack is both old-school and new-school. He has that unassailable integrity which is immeasurable but instantly recognizable. But he’s also savvy – and understands the British medical, regulatory and legal systems inside out. If Dr. Bawa-Garba’s license is reinstated, Cusack’s role would be akin to that of the code breakers in the Second World War. Dr. Bawa-Garba trusts him implicitly. Her legal team can’t function without him.
Cusack was loyally involved in both the rehabilitation of Dr. Bawa-Garba’s clinical confidence after Jack’s death, and her trial. I met him after the first day’s appeal hearing in the pub opposite the Courts of Justice. Originally hesitant to speak to me, being the ostentatious expat Brit that I am, he agreed to an interview on the condition that I not make too much of a song and dance about his contribution. I promised that I wouldn’t. I lied.