New inquiry into toddler’s tragic heart failure death during Leeds children’s heart unit row

Leeds General Infirmary.
Leeds General Infirmary.
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A family’s quest for answers over the death of a toddler weeks after he was operated on at the height of the Leeds children’s heart surgery dispute reached the courtroom today.

Max James Haigh, from Scarborough, was just 14 months old when he died of heart failure 42 days after undergoing a complex procedure to treat his congenital heart problems on March 18 2013 – just a week before NHS England medical director Sir Bruce Keogh controversially suspended all children’s heart surgery in Leeds.

A rally in Millennium Square in support of the Leeds children's heart unit in 2012.

A rally in Millennium Square in support of the Leeds children's heart unit in 2012.

The unit’s closure was overturned two weeks later after it was deemed that data, suggesting high death rates in Leeds that led to the decision, was inaccurate.

Max’s death at Scarborough General Hospital on June 12 2013 also coincided with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that the closure of three children’s heart units including Leeds had been suspended due to a “flawed” consultation.

Details of the family’s concerns over the need for the procedure and the quality of the operation at Leeds General Infirmary were revealed during a pre inquest review hearing, which was attended by Max’s mother, at Leeds Coroners Court today.

Assistant coroner Philip Holden said: “She [Max’s mother] raises questions over whether or not surgery should have taken place and of the actual undertaking of that surgery and Max’s last admission in the days leading up to his unfortunate death.”

A full three-day inquest into the cause of Max’s death, calling on more than a dozen witnesses and witness statements, has been scheduled for Leeds Coroners Court on February 3 next year.

Dr Peter Ellis, who was representing Max’s family at the review with solicitor Laurence Vick, said: “This is an extremely complicated case which has its roots in complex cardiac surgery and the primary family concern is that wrong decisions were taken.”

He told the coroner that the family has concerns over whether it was “foreseeable” that the operation “was not going to work”.

Dr Ellis added: “He was left in a weakened and worse state by the surgery than he was in before.”

He also said that a statement issued by a senior cardiologist has, however, suggested that “it wasn’t unreasonable” to attempt the operation on the youngster.

Despite this both Dr Ellis and Michael Rawlinson, representing Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, recognised that there had not yet been evidence submitted by an independent expert.

Mr Holden agreed that expert comment should be sought before the February inquest opens but warned that finding a paediatric cardiac expert within that time frame may prove difficult.

Earlier this year children’s heart surgery campaigners in Leeds expressed their “relief” after a two-year NHS England review into congenital heart disease services rubber-stamped a new list of national standards that were seen as a major step towards securing the unit’s future.

In 2009 NHS England set about plans to close Leeds’ unit and two others. The decision was overturned in 2013 before the unit was closed for two weeks over unfounded claims. A year-long independent review deemed the service safe in 2014.

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