It is probably an over used phrase but I think one that applies very well to the care that Eve has received this week at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I have never met William Harkness, the surgeon who performed the operation yesterday but he spoke with Eve and my wife before and after he did his work.
Apparently he was very reassuring both before and after the procedure and communicated the percentages of success very well (which have gone from 70% to 80%). Sue described Mr Harkness as a giant of a man, and having googled his name last night I don’t think that this description refers solely to his physical presence.
One article I found was this one from the Telegraph in 2002 reporting on the 150th anniversary of the hospital:
Yet, operations that might cause challenging ethical debate are rare at the hospital. The fact is that, every day, Great Ormond Street performs “miracles”. Last week, I watched a six-year-old girl have brain surgery, which could transform her life in a similar manner to that of Jemma Mitchell (below). The girl was suffering 30 epileptic seizures a day and her parents feared she would have learning disabilities and never be independent.
The meticulous care of the neurosurgeon William Harkness and his team of more than a dozen are impressive. So, too, is the array of up-to-the-minute technology. Mr Harkness explained how the probe he placed on the child’s frontal cortex showed him exactly where he is in relation to the pre-operative tests and scans. This “image guidance system” is just one of the hugely expensive resources of which the NHS is so short.
As Mr Harkness pointed out, the cost of theatre equipment can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Much of it is funded by hospital appeals – as is the newest equipment in many NHS hospitals. “We are obliged to talk in terms of cost effectiveness,” he says. “It can be difficult to assess in neurosurgery. But if we can transform a child, whose only prospect is long-term care, into an independent person, then Mr Blair may have another taxpayer in the future.”
Mr Harkness wants Great Ormond Street to be the first hospital in Britain to install an image guidance system that incorporates a live MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan of the brain during operations. “It is the next logical step in neurosurgery, which is being pioneered in other European centres.”
When neurosurgery started in the 1880s, localising damaged tissue was difficult and depended on the patients’ physical symptoms. CT (Computerized Tomography) scans were a Seventies breakthrough, while the quantum leap was the development of MRI scans.
Even so, Mr Harkness says: “This still means you are operating on images obtained yesterday. In today’s case, that does not matter very much, but there are cases where you would like the live image during the operation.
“The aim always is to limit the chance of harming normal tissue and to give the patient the best possible physical and cognitive function.” To share such a system with their neighbour, the National Hospital for Neurology, would cost £2.5 million. Mr Harkness is already fund-raising: he started with a sponsored trek in Nepal last year.
Great Ormond Street is home to the largest unit for treating children’s brain tumours and performs 100 operations every year. Other research achievements include improving the success rate for bone marrow transplants and further understanding of cancer and genetic disorders. A gene therapy laboratory was opened last year, and ground-breaking clinical trials on the treatment of children with severe immunological disorders have begun.
In addition to this expensive research, the hospital also provides accommodation for up to 1,000 parents a week, a hospital school for long-term patients and a play centre for sick children and their siblings, as well as a joint fund-raising venture with the National Centre for Young People with Epilepsy for a chair in paediatric epilepsy. None of these commitments comes cheap.
Another inspirational tale of Mr Harkness’s work can be found in this Guardian article
In any circumstances I would be an admirer of a man like William Harkness. However in the process of him helping my daughter, no sorry, that understates it. In the process of him giving my daughter the opportunity to live (hopefully) seizure and pain free and thus let her live a normal life, that admiration is transformed to the power of ten.
I hope anyone who has read this will take just a few moments to reflect on the people out there who are so skilled to do such involved and intricate work. So dedicated to that work that they would actively fund raise for better equipment.
Mind you I suppose it’s not all one way. I can only imagine William Harkness’s job satisfaction quotient. I’ll bet it knocks yours and mine into a cocked hat!
I’m sure he would be far too modest to accept the accolade of hero. Despite the long road still to be travelled, to a young girl and her family in Scotland, that is precisely what he is.