A foul-mouthed consultant surgeon killed a teenage leukaemia patient on the operating table when he lost his temper during a routine procedure, a court heard yesterday.
Sixteen-year-old Kelly Dent’s heart was punctured while Kenneth Woodburn tried to insert a tube in her chest. She died from massive internal bleeding.
Woodburn, a blood vessel specialist, was said to have been swearing as he worked under pressure to finish the task quickly so he could get to an afternoon clinic 25 miles away.
He had not expected to operate on Kelly, who had been added to the end of his surgery list at short notice.
Theatre staff nurse Wendy Button told the jury how Woodburn, 39, tried to insert a guide wire into the patient.
‘The surgeon pushed and shoved quite aggressively,’ she said. ‘He was swearing and said, “Nothing in this ******* place works – it’s like ******* against the wind.”
‘He went on to say that this was supposed to be a vascular unit but it was more like a ******* Mickey Mouse operation, or words to that effect.
‘He swore because he could not insert the guide wire. He used so much force that her whole body shook. I was aghast at the language and the way the patient was being handled.’
Kelly died at the Treliske Hospital in Truro, Cornwall, in September, 1998. Woodburn, of nearby Idless, denies manslaughter at Exeter Crown Court.
Prosecutor John Bevan QC said Kelly, originally from Lincolnshire, was diagnosed with ‘a virulent and bad form’ of acute myeloid leukaemia in early 1998.
He said it was a life-threatening disease of the bone marrow but chemotherapy progressed well and she was in remission.
A catheter called a Hickman line had to be inserted in her chest to enable drugs to be administered and samples to be taken.
Because of difficulties in performing the procedure on September 1 it was decided to bring in Woodburn the next day.
Mr Bevan said it was a common procedure carried out in hospitals nationwide using local anaesthetic, but Kelly was given a general anaesthetic ‘as a concession to her youth, her anxiety, her tearfulness and failures by others’ to insert the line the day before.
‘The risk to life was minimal, her mother was not warned in advance of any risk, it was a standard procedure and it was unusual for the operating task to be done by a senior surgeon.
‘Sadly, what should have been a reasonably simple and certainly not sophisticated or complicated operation, albeit it was under general anaesthetic, went disastrously wrong.’
He said Woodburn was normally a competent and respected vascular surgeon but on this ‘rare if not unique occasion’ various factors conspired to make him lose his temper in theatre and act in a way which eventually became dangerous to Kelly’s health.
He added: ‘We say that negligence, if it is proved by the evidence, amounts to an offence of manslaughter or unlawful killing.’ Kelly was added to the end of Woodburn’s morning list which was already full, said Mr Bevan.
‘He also had an outpatients’ clinic at West Cornwall Hospital, Penzance, planned for 2pm and was going to need to finish operating on Kelly Dent by about 1pm.
‘She was brought to the theatre at 12.20pm. There was about 40 minutes. Time was going to be reasonably short from the outset.’
In a police interview, Woodburn admitted things took longer than expected. Mr Bevan said: ‘He accepted at one stage in the proceedings being a little annoyed. He also accepted he used bad language as his way of relieving tension and that it was a standing joke with the theatre staff he normally worked with.
‘He said the time pressure made his language worse but did not make him take short cuts.
‘He accepted something he had done during the operation must have produced the damage that led to her death but what he said was that it was a rare and recognised complication.’
The trial continues.