Shattered Life: NHS Nightmare: Repeated Surgery Cancellations Kill Elderly Cancer Patient

Posted: Aug 31, 2009 12:03 PM
...from the National Center for Public Policy Research's startling new book, Shattered Lives: 100 Stories es of Government Health Care

NHS Nightmare: Repeated Surgery Cancellations Kill Elderly Cancer Patient

Mavis Skeet, 74, of West Yorkshire, United Kingdom was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, an aggressive throat cancer that kills 90 percent of victims within five years of diagnosis.

In early December 1999, following a scan showing that the cancer had not spread, doctors were due to remove Skeet’s gullet and to surgically determine the extent of the disease.  Skeet’s family had hoped the growth would be treated in time for Christmas.

However, the operation scheduled that December at Leeds General Infirmary was cancelled because one of the members of the surgery team, an anesthesiologist, had the flu. As the winter flu season progressed over the coming weeks, Skeet’s surgery was cancelled another three times because the hospital lacked available intensive care beds.

Dr. Hugo Mascie-Taylor, medical director for the Leeds hospital, reasoned, “It would have been irresponsible to have carried out the operation when we could not have been sure of having an intensive care bed available.” But on one occasion, surgery was cancelled as Skeet was being moved to the operating room “because her intensive care bed was needed by another patient,” according to a BBC report.

“It’s heartbreaking.  The whole point of her going into hospital was to have an emergency operation,” said daughter Jane Skeet. “We are very angry.  The doctors say they can’t tell whether the cancer’s spread until they operate, which means it could be spreading all the time while there’s a lack of beds.”

Unfortunately, Jane Skeet’s fears were realized.  As the cancer progressed, Mavis Skeet had to be fed through an intravenous drip because the tumor prevented her from swallowing. By the time doctors got around to work on Skeet in January 2000 – five weeks after the initial scheduled operation – it was too late.  The cancer had spread to her windpipe in two places, and doctors determined the tumor was inoperable.

“I know that if she’d had the operation five weeks ago the cancer would not have spread to her windpipe,” said an angry Jane Skeet. “Had they operated five weeks ago the tumor was operable and could have been removed.  Now they can’t operate.”

For five months, Jane helplessly watched her mother’s condition deteriorate, until Mavis Skeet passed away in late May 2000. Jane puts blame for her mother’s death squarely on the British National Health Service.  “This is due to lack of resources and bad planning,” she said.  “The government is trying to cover it up by saying the hospitals are coping, but they’re obviously not.”

In frustration, Jane wrote to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, detailing her mother’s astounding experience with the NHS: “How can you justify the loss of a life because of the lack of a suitable bed?  ...We placed our mother’s life in the hands of your Health Service and it has killed her.  My mother is a devout Christian and she had helped her church raise funds for hospitals.  It is a cruel irony that this is how she is repaid.

“I look at my mother and I still can’t believe she is going to die, but we know she will.  She will because the NHS let her down in the most crucial five weeks of her entire life.”

Purchase or download a free PDF of The National Center for Public Policy Research's new book, Shattered Lives: 100 Stories of Government Health Care, for more on the way waiting lists affect the lives of people living in countries with government-run medicine.  You can download it today for free at

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