BMJ 2001;323:1387 ( 15 December )
Teenager died after surgeon "lost his temper"
Clare Dyer legal correspondent, BMJ
A consultant surgeon standing trial at Exeter crown court for the
manslaughter of a teenage patient caused her death through negligence after
losing his temper during the operation, the court was told last week.
Kenneth Woodburn, aged 39, of Idless, near Truro, Cornwall, pleaded not
guilty to the manslaughter of 16 year old Kelly Dent at Treliske Hospital, Truro,
in September 1998.
The teenager, who had acute myeloid leukaemia, was added to Mr Woodburns
operating list at short notice, after attempts by her own consultant to insert
a Hickman line had failed.
"Sadly, what should have been a reasonably simple and certainly not
sophisticated or complicated operationalbeit it was under general
anaestheticwent disastrously wrong," said Mr John Bevan QC, prosecuting.
Part of the patients heart was punctured, and she died on the operating table.
Mr Bevan said that Mr Woodburn was accepted to be a competent and respected
vascular surgeon. But on this "rare if not unique occasion" shortness
of time together with things going wrong and the normal tension and stress of
the operating theatre caused him to lose his temper and act in a way that
eventually became dangerous.
Mr Woodburn had been asked to add Kelly Dent to his operating list for the
next day when the list was already full. He had a clinic that afternoon in
Penzance, which meant he had 40 minutes to operate on Kelly Dent. The procedure
was a standard one, not normally carried out by such a senior surgeon.
Two theatre nurses, Philippa Denton and Wendy Button, told the court they
were shocked by Mr Woodburns behaviour during the operation. Mrs Button, a
staff nurse, said she was "aghast" at Mr Woodburns language and the
way the patient was handled.
She told the jury: "He just could not insert the guide wire and asked
for another. I could not see what the problem was but he was using such force
her whole body shook."
She said that Mr Woodburn "unusually" had asked for an eight inch
clamp. "He was quite forceful with it. Again the whole body shook. What he
was trying to do with it I have no idea."
Mrs Button said she came out of the theatre in "horrendous shock"
after the girls death. "I looked at her face, and it was obvious she had
died. I would normally say deaths are nothing in theatres. But when they are
butchered to death like that, it certainly is."
Theatre nurse Philippa Denton told the jury that Mr Woodburn was
"agitated and swearing." He bent a metal tunnelling rod "because
he used it with such force." His physical treatment of the patient in
trying to insert the rod was "very aggressive and violent."
She had advised him against using forceps with a right angled curve, which
she had never seen used in the tunnelling procedure before. But he persisted,
pushing "really hard."
Mr Woodburn was suspended last June by the Royal Cornwall
Hospitals Trust. The trial is expected to end next week.
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