Top MP: 'NHS failed my dying lover'

by JAMES CHAPMAN, Daily Mail

One of Britain's brightest young MPs has attacked the NHS for failing in its care of his terminally-ill girlfriend.

Dr Evan Harris, who is stepping down as Liberal Democrat health spokesman to look after 29-year-old Liz O'Hara, is angry that doctors repeatedly failed to diagnose her brain tumour.

The MP, a qualified hospital doctor, said she was twice sent away by her GP with headache tablets. When she was finally referred to hospital, a junior doctor ignored Dr Harris's pleas for a brain scan.

He said: 'I am furious. If even I, in my position - and they knew who I was - couldn't stop it happening to someone dear to me, what about other people?'

Dr Harris condemned the failure as an example of the 'doctor knows best' culture in the NHS.

It was only when Miss O'Hara, an interior designer, flew home to Ireland that doctors there diagnosed a massive and aggressive brain tumour.

She was suffering from glioblastoma multiforme, a highly malignant cancer that kills most sufferers within 18 months of diagnosis.

She lapsed into a coma and nearly died. Dublin surgeons removed the tumour, buying her time, but they have told the couple her condition is terminal.

Dr Harris stressed that there was no question that Miss O'Hara, his partner of four years, could have been cured had she been diagnosed more promptly, because the cancer is so severe.

But she could have died as a result of the pressure which built up in her brain while the tumour went undetected.

Dr Harris, 37, the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said he was 'very angry'. He added: 'It was blindingly obvious she needed a scan - you couldn't miss the indications. She didn't know what day it was and she was being sick.

'It's what I have always been concerned about - in a busy NHS, there's not enough time given to talking to the patient.

'It's an attitude problem. Doctors sometimes think they are not going to be pushed around by relatives or patients.'

Miss O'Hara started suffering headaches last May. Dr Harris, who worked in hospitals in Liverpool and Oxford before entering politics, persuaded her to see her GP in London.

'The doctor just gave her headache tablets,' he said. 'They didn't seem to make her any better.

'She's not a complainer, but she would wake up with a headache and it would be there a lot of the time. She went back to the same GP practice and they gave her migraine tablets but they didn't help either.

'She couldn't even go to work. I phoned her GP and said: "You need to send her to a hospital which has a scanner and a neurological department". But the local hospital was closed because of a virus.'

Then, despite her GP's requests, a junior admissions doctor at an East London NHS trust decided to send Miss O'Hara to a small centre with no neurological department.

The doctor who examined her there also failed to ask for a brain scan before giving her the all-clear. Two days later, increasingly disorientated, she flew to see her mother in County Mayo.

Dr Harris said: 'We had seen a gradual change in her, but her mother hadn't seen her for months and knew immediately that Liz was a different person.

'Their GP in Ireland said straight away she needed to go to hospital. The morning after she was admitted she collapsed into a deep coma. She was taken for a scan and they found a massive frontal lesion in her brain.

' Her prognosis was extremely bleak. The neurosurgeons said they couldn't take her unless she showed some sign of life. Remarkably, she rallied.'

Around 2,000 Britons each year are severely disabled by glioblastoma, the most common form of primary brain cancer.

Miss O'Hara received radiotherapy but decided against having chemotherapy. While it can buy patients an average extra three months of life, it has serious side effects.

After the operation, the couple decided to see the world and have travelled to South Africa, Egypt and Prague.

They also visited a cancer conference in Chicago, to hear of the latest experimental treatments.

Dr Harris said Miss O'Hara had shown remarkable courage. 'I have never met anyone with such fortitude,' he said. 'She is fantastic, and I hugely admire her, because I don't know how I would cope.'

The MP, who has been tipped as a future LibDem leader, said he would continue to work in his constituency and hoped to make a front bench comeback after the next election.

The couple have not complained formally to the NHS but Dr Harris has made his feelings about what happened known to the hospital.

He has decided not to name it, he said, because he does not want to victimise one institution and hopes the case will encourage doctors throughout the NHS to listen to patients and relatives.

Miss O'Hara said she was delighted at Dr Harris's decision to step down from the front bench. 'I didn't want to get in the way of his career, so I left him to make the decision,' she said.

'I'm living each day as it comes and enjoying as much as I can. I don't know how long I have, so it's lovely that Evan wants to spend this time with me.'

j.chapman@dailymail.co.uk

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