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Hate Crimes

Doctor 'had child's head in a jar'

Hospital braced for violent protest over organ scandal

By Gaby Hinsliff and Anthony Browne
The Observer
Saturday January 27, 2001


The pathologist at the heart of a scandal over stockpiled human organs kept a child's head stored in a jar, a damning report is this week expected to reveal. The findings make such distressing reading that the Government is braced for violent scenes at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool when grieving parents see them.

The report comes after a one-year inquiry into how hundreds of children's organs, many taken at post-mortem examinations without parents' knowledge, were stored under the auspices of Professor Dick Van Velzen, apparently without the knowledge of senior hospital officials. The findings are expected to conclude that the collection of organs went far beyond what would have been necessary for his research.

Some children lost almost all of their internal organs at post-mortem examinations after unwitting parents signed consent forms asking merely for samples of 'tissue'. At least one preserved head is understood to have been found among the collection.

The report will not only severely criticise Van Velzen, who has insisted the backlog of body parts built up because of lack of funding to complete his cot death research, but also the hospital's management for its complete failure to monitor him, and its treatment of parents when news of the scandal first emerged

Families were repeatedly given false information and some were offered body parts of their children to take home in cardboard boxes. Others had to reopen their children's graves three or four times to ensure they had buried the entire bodies.

'What we are talking about here is the activities of a rogue pathologist,' said one senior Department of Health source. 'The scale, as well as the horror, of what was going on at Alder Hey is unprecedented. The scale of the organ retention was in no way comparable with the degree of research.' He said there were concerns about 'civil disturbance'.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn is spending the weekend studying the 600-page report. He will give the first hint of his thinking tomorrow in a speech arguing that 'consent' to procedures must mean more than ticking a box if trust is to be preserved.

'The days have gone when the NHS could act as a secret society,' he will say. 'It cannot operate behind closed doors. It cannot keep patients in the dark. It has to actively earn the trust of patients.

'And if things go wrong it needs to explain why, it needs to be quicker to say sorry. In short, the NHS has to be open and honest in dealing with the people it serves. It is the right of the individual, not the right of institutions, that counts.'

He is expected to promise new laws governing consent to post-mortem examinations, including forcing doctors to explain exactly what the procedure involves and ask what patients want to happen to the organs when they have finished.

The report will be published on Tuesday, alongside a second survey by chief medical officer Liam Donaldson revealing that up to 40,000 body parts are stored for teaching and research at hospitals throughout Britain, many without relatives' knowledge.

The Donaldson report will stress that the sheer scale of malpractice at Alder Hey has not been repeated elsewhere. But it will say that pathologists should not regard material from dead bodies as simply theirs to use for research purposes.

The scandal at Alder Hey emerged almost accidentally when heart specialist Professor Robert Anderson revealed at a separate official inquiry into heart surgery in Bristol that a store of children's hearts was kept at Alder Hey.

When the hospital investigated, it discovered a massive store of brains, hearts and other organs, triggering an independent inquiry ordered by the Government.

The investigation focused on Van Velzen, who became chair of infant and foetal pathology at Liverpool University in 1988. He moved to Canada in 1995, where he was subsequently sacked and disciplined for 'incompetent acts'. He then moved to Holland. Much of the material was found at his offices in Liverpool rather than at the hospital. Late last year Canada filed for his extradition from The Hague after discovering body parts from five-year-old children in his stored belongings. Van Velzen claimed they were for research.

The inquiry heard moving evidence from many parents accusing the hospital of insensitive treatment and withholding information.

Last week it emerged the hospital had passed discarded thymus glands taken from living children during heart operations to a drug company for research in exchange for financial donations.

Such is the level of suspicion between the parents and the hospital that many suspect the trade in organs could have been more extensive. 'My son died aged four and a half months, and all his organs were removed and kept at Alder Hey - but we never found his pancreas,' said Jan Robinson of parents' pressure group PITYII.

'There are various other children where the pancreases are missing. Was it used for diabetes research? We've asked the hospital but they haven't given us an answer.'

She says the parents are 'very apprehensive' about the report. Lawyers for the families have begun preparing action for damages but could be hindered by the fact that the law on consent is unclear.

The Government is not expected to offer a central compensation fund. Milburn is expected, however, to dwell heavily on the unacceptable treatment of the parents.

'It was shambolic. The way their parents were treated was with a total lack of respect and fairness - it was as though somehow they were part of what had gone wrong at the hospital, not the victims,' said one Whitehall source. 'What we think they want is acknowledgement that they have suffered, a recognition that what happened at Alder Hey was profoundly wrong, and some reassurance that we will put in place the necessary changes to ensure it does not ever happen again.'

The Health Secretary is also frustrated with the failure of the General Medical Council to have Van Velzen struck off. It has said it must await the full findings.

The report was passed to the Department of Health in November. Its publication has been delayed by the need to ensure that new guidelines hampered neither research nor organ donation for transplants.