The Yorkshire Times - Children's Heart Unit Closure: We've Got To Talk

By Steve James – Features Editor

Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war.

And how true that must seem to the neutral onlooker – if any remain – trying to make sense of the battle now looming between those who wish to keep children’s heart surgery in Leeds, and those who believe, just as passionately, that the city’s children’s heart unit must close.

Let’s get this straight: the pro-closure group are not the ogres of some people’s imaginations. Both sides of the argument are supported by caring, thoughtful and passionate people with countless years of clinical experience behind them. Not to mention parents with harrowing stories of young lives saved and lost, and treatments provided or withheld.

Which is why we feel it’s vital that each side is heard clearly and fairly.

Because somewhere trapped in the middle lies a bewildered public, anguished by fears for the health of other people’s children or worried by the implications should their own children ever need such help. And we know vast numbers of you care about this issue. The largest peace-time petition in the history of the NHS, signed by some 600,000 people, should convince even the most cynical just how much the closure of children’s heart surgery in Leeds matters to people here in Yorkshire, and beyond.

So, today, we’re pleased to present the argument of those who think it’s in the best interests of everyone concerned, but most particularly of the children, that Leeds closes for good. Not because we take sides either way, but because we believe the more we talk about this, the better the outcome will be.

Today the Yorkshire page of The Yorkshire Times carries a letter signed by three of the leaders of charities intimately involved in the care of children in the UK suffering through problems with their hearts, who all argue for closure of the unit. The main charity, the Children’s Heart Federation (CHF), is the UK’s leading children’s heart charity, representing 23 member groups which support heart children and their families.

We sincerely hope you will find the time to read it.

Because let us also be clear on this: many people retain deep misgivings about the closure plans. For large numbers of deeply worried people, two main fears remain: the first concerns the CHF’s assertion that outpatient care ‘closer to a patient’s home’ somehow can and will make up for the trauma of parents having to uproot to be with sick children during the crisis of their operations, or worse, not being able to afford to do so.

And the second is perhaps even more severe. People fear that behind the seemingly plausible explanations and the apparently convincing statistics lies a simple and far more brutal truth: that it’s all about money. That the health of gravely ill children is nothing more than one of the entries on an accountant’s balance sheet. That the closure of Leeds’ unit would take us to the top of a slippery slope with no end in sight.

Campaigners for closure must indeed keep a firm focus on the size of the task ahead and the sincerity of people’s deep upset about closure of the unit. Any attempt just to brush aside such concerns is not worth the paper it’s written on.

But, for the moment, we remain open to being convinced. We think it’s wholly to the good that as much comes into the public realm as possible, that ears and minds open, and remain so. Only that way, by hearing all the facts can the right thing be done by those who really matter in this whole saga, and those who have no voice – the children.

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A letter from supporters of the closure of The Leeds Children’s Heart Unit

It is extremely disappointing that possible legal action could delay further vital improvements to children’s heart services. Children have waited too long for change and another protracted legal battle is the last thing families want.
As national children’s heart charities we remain deeply concerned that children still do not have access to specialist staff round the clock. We are very aware that to ensure excellence in and long term viability of paediatric cardiac surgery throughout the country, it is vital to establish a national service whereby each hospital undertaking surgery has sufficient surgeons to enable planned and emergency operations to take place at the same time.

Children must no longer be dependent on the goodwill of surgeons to come in on their days off and it is vital that there are a sufficient number of operations to ensure that surgeons maintain their skills and develop new treatments.

We recognise that the logic of this means that there will be fewer hospitals offering surgery and so it is equally important that the ongoing, long term cardiology care is provided through outpatient clinics closer to a patient’s home thereby minimising travel for many families.
We understand the loyalty felt by parents to individual centres and the staff who care for their children, but improving the quality of the service nationally must come first. We would remind everyone that there is widespread support from both parents and clinicians for the standards.

We have therefore been saddened to see units attempting to resist change in an approach that some may view as misplaced localism. We urge everyone concerned with the care of children with heart conditions, whether it be clinician, manager, parent or politician, to pull together so that implementation can take place in a planned and timely manner. These changes will ensure that all of the children that need it will have access to world class care in the future.

Anne Keatley-Clarke, Chief Executive
Children’s Heart Federation

Penny Green, Director
Down’s Heart Group

Julie Wootton, Chief Executive 
Max Appeal

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