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Heartless! Leeds Children's Heart Unit To Close
Ruby was diagnosed with multiple congenital heart defects at 18 months old.
In what will come as a huge blow for campaigners, NHS bosses at Leeds General Infirmary have announced the closure of the city's, and Yorkshire's only, children's heart surgery unit.

At half past six last night, a committee of health professionals drawn up to 'streamline' national children's cardiac units from ten down to seven broke the news that anxious parents had been dreading.

Families from as far afield as Yorkshire and the Humber, Lincolnshire and North Derbyshire will now have to travel to dedicated children's units in Liverpool, Newcastle or even London to secure vital heart surgery for their children.

The committee's decision will also come as a bitter disappointment to the 600,000 people who signed the largest petition in NHS history, calling for Leeds' renowned cardiac unit for kids to be kept open.

It Matters to the People Concerned

Ruby Brice, who lives in North Yorkshire, was diagnosed with multiple congenital heart defects when she was just 18 months old.

Ruby and her twin sister Daisy
Ruby, who has a healthy twin sister called Daisy, first underwent open-heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary in February 2011 and now faces a lifetime of operations. It now looks as though the family will have to travel to Newcastle every day to be with Ruby.

Ruby's mum, Sally Boocock, has been one of those campaigning vigorously for the heart unit's retention in Leeds.

Sally has this to say about the announcement:

"We are absolutely devastated about the closure of Ruby's heart unit. We may have lost this battle, but we have definelty not lost the war. I am going to carry on fighting as this decision is so wrong. Leeds has been sacrificed so Newcastle can stay open."

"Since the campaign began 18 months Ruby has been diagnosed with liver, and kidney problems which require surgical intervention. All which could have been done at Leeds as it is a children's hospital with a medical specialist in every field under one roof. I do not know what will happen now as Newcastle is not a children's hospital yet they have won and Leeds has lost. There is no clinical logic at all. It's a complete injustice."


Fewer, Better Centres

The move to close the Yorkshire Heart Centre, as the unit is known, comes after an NHS review of children's heart surgery in England, which concluded that expertise in surgery and other areas was spread too thinly, putting children's care and welfare at risk.

The review panel recommended a reduction in the number of units to create fewer, larger centres, each of which would be better placed to attract and retain the quality professionals and funding needed.

Under the plans the Yorkshire Heart Centre would remain open for specialist procedures until the end of 2013, before joining two other units - the Royal Brompton in Chelsea and Glenfield Hospital in Leicester - in closure. After this time, the three units would continue to see patients for diagnosis, monitoring and non-surgical treatment only.

Campaigners Unconvinced

Unconvinced campaigners from across Yorkshire and the North-East however passionately believe the area served by the Yorkshire Heart Centre, the West Yorkshire Urban Area with a population of 1,500,000 - the fourth most populous in the UK - needs its own children's surgery unit.

Fighting to save surgery in Leeds since the review started through protest marches and lobbying their MPs, those alarmed by the proposals have gathered over 600,000 signatures to a petition opposed to the closure.

Earlier this year, the council leader for one of the areas that would be heavily affected by the closure, Kirklees, called on the government to honour the strength of feeling shown by those against the closure, while condemning the costly legal infighting as a 'fiasco'.

Clr Mehboob Khan, Chair of the Kirklees Health and Well-Being Board, said: 'We now have the sorry state of affairs where one part of the health service is battling it out in court against another part of the health service, wasting hundreds thousands of pounds on lawyers in the process.

'This huge cost can easily be avoided and taxpayers expect their taxes to be spent on healthcare.

'I am sure that the public cannot understand how this situation has been allowed to happen and why it is that the Government has not intervened in this ridiculous state of affairs.

'I am therefore asking the Secretary of State for Health to take notice of the wishes of 600,000 people who signed the petition against the closure of the Leeds unit - the largest petition ever in the history of the NHS - and put an end to the NHS infighting and the squandering of public money by making a ruling which retains the children's heart unit in Leeds.'

Unprecedented Legal Tussle

The Royal Brompton in Chelsea, west London, initially won the High Court's backing when it argued that the consultations around the streamlining of paediatric heart surgery services in England were unlawful.

But the hospital, the largest specialist heart and lung centre in the UK and among the largest centres in Europe, lost the legal battle in April after the Court of Appeal overturned the decision, declaring the review of national paediatric surgery carried out by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT), another part of the NHS, to be fair.

Commenting on the ruling, Chris Ham, chief executive of The King's Fund health think-tank, said: 'The Royal Brompton case is emblematic of the challenges faced generally in the NHs over the question of how we can improve outcomes for patients. Surgeons who do more of these procedures get better at it.'

More legal battles were likely as the NHS continues to rationalise he added.

Fight Remains

Many of those opposed to closure of the Leeds unit argue the review forces the wrong choice on the public. Rather than choosing between fewer, better units and the current provision, they want care trusts to keep the same number of units, while improving the quality of each.

Meanwhile, those now threatened with the prospect of longer, more stressful journeys to care for loved ones or potentially crippling hotel bills while staying near children in hospitals further afield insist the fight remains to be won.

Speaking earlier this year as she attended a meeting to protest at the plans, Cassie Symms, of Rotherham, spoke of the extra stress the unit closure would put her and her family under, already burdened with the worry of having to care for a sick child.

Her seven-month-old son, Zander, was born with a hole in the heart and will need surgery and check-ups. 'I think it's devastating, the amount of travel I would have to do,' she said. 'If he got critically ill how quick we would have to get somewhere and how quick would he be seen? It would be a lot of stress on myself.'

Further information about opposing the plans may be found here:
http://www.chsf.org.uk/save-our-heart-surgery-unit

To comment on the Yorkshire Times Twitter stream, use @TheYorksTimes

Heartless! Leeds Children's Heart Unit To Close, 5th July 2012, 9:05 AM