How it all began

Peter Ransley, Honorary Life President

Peter Ransley, Honorary Life President

Peter Ransley, founder and honorary life president of AvMA tells the story of how AvMA was born

Once upon a time there was a hospital where the doctors were all good and caring, and the nurses were all angels. No, this wasn’t a fairy story, but its near relation, a television soap.

I wrote some episodes of a BBC series called Angels twenty years ago and brought up the revolutionary idea of a doctor making a mistake.

“Doctors don’t make mistakes”, the producer said.

“We all make mistakes”, I protested.

“Not on Angels“, she said.

Nevertheless, after a bit of horse-trading during which I agreed to concentrate on the really important subject of the episode, Belinda’s love affair, she relented.

I constructed a situation where there were two Mrs Browns on the ward and one of them was given the other’s drug by mistake. As a result she has a stroke and will be unable to work again. I made her a single mother with two dependent children.

Sarah, a student nurse, who witnesses the incident, knows that the effect on Mrs Brown’s life will be disastrous, but if she knew the truth, she could at least claim compensation.

Does Sarah tell? I put the question to nurses on the ward of a teaching hospital where my wife worked as a social worker. Their answers were the real moment when AvMA began. Not one said she would.

I looked for a real case and found a Mrs Brown with two dependent children. Her name was Stella and what happened to her was such an unbelievable nightmare I can still recall my anger when I taped her story, more than twenty years ago.

Stella went into the Whittington Hospital in north London for a routine sterilisation by keyhole surgery. After the operation she was in considerable pain.

The doctor said it was due to paralytic ileus where the gut goes on strike and will not push the waste through. It would right itself on its own accord. In fact, much more seriously, her bowel had been damaged and blocked.

Her acute pain was denied by her doctor and nurses until eventually she was rushed into theatre where, by good fortune, an expert bowel surgeon was on hand who saved her life. The hospital denied liability for years, and it was only Stella’s persistence than won her compensation.

Her story, which I dramatised in a BBC play Minor Complications, exposed the system for dealing with what are euphemistically called “adverse incidents” as a sham. Her medical expert, when asked by Stella’s barrister if he would testify in court, said he would but it would not be necessary: the hospital would pay.

The penny dropped for Stella, and for me when she told me. There never had been a defence. The hospital played the long legal game of denial until the plaintiff got fed up, exhausted, ran out of money or died. It was as blatant as that.

When the play was first broadcast in 1980 it drew a number of people round our kitchen table, including a lawyer called Arnold Simanowitz, who shortly afterwards gave up his practice to begin AvMA with a prayer and a small grant from the GLC. The rest is by no means history.

Peter Ransley, Founder